Monday, April 27, 2009

Swine Flu: We Had Better Worry

While the World Health Organization has stated that it considers the recent outbreak of Swine Flu in Mexico to be a major threat and says that it could quickly become a pandemic, our own authorities here in the U.S. seem unconcerned, even though 8 cases have been reported in NYC and many more in Texas, in communities close to the border.

Mexico City has been virtually shut down as authorities scramble to get the epidemic under control. Most public facilities such as libraries and schools have been closed, and citizens are being cautioned to leave their homes as little as possible.

Is the virus really under control here, or are our leaders downplaying the threat for fear of the effect that public fear might have on the economy? Charles Hughes Smith at Of Two Minds thinks the latter, that our leaders have, while knowing full well the scope of the threat, adopted a policy of "no bad news" so as not to ruffle the fragile financial markets.

Can we trust our political leaders to put public health and safety ahead of corporate profits? Can we trust them to tell the public the truth, even if it means consumer spending will take another huge hit? We have to doubt it, especially after the maladroit handling of the Katrina disaster by local, state, and federal officials alike.

Update: Immediately after I published this post, the Dow Jones wire reported that 100 people have died of flu in Mexico, and that the European markets have fallen as investors dump travel-related stocks. One case of the flu has been reported in Spain and 17 more are being investigated.


Nudge said...

Hi Laura. So far, it seems like the “no bad news” approach is winning the day here in the US.

Someone set up one of those aggregator maps of cases of Mexican Flu:

At first there were no cases shown for South America, but now there are a few in Chile, with a cluster around Santiago. Waiting to see if it shows up in sub-saharan Africa, or the interior of South America, where available medical care is not available at first-world standards. Finding its way into some not-so-well-monitored host population, and then festering / mutating / being passed around / etc for many months more is probably the worst outcome. Even if we start manufacturing vaccines now (based on available cultures) the MexFlu could mutate far enough out of range of it by the time the fall comes around.

What we've just learned (again!) is that our society is horribly vulnerable to a disease that can be spread by casual contact or airborne particles .. and that our authorities are either incapable of or unwilling to take drastic measures to prevent the spread of such disease. For how many weeks now has this been a known thing, and yet we continued to do nothing to curtail flights to and from Mexico? It's all too easy to go from “But, but, think of the airlines! And the hotels!” to shutdown mode because everyone's ill or dying.

The North Coast said...

Hi, Nudge, good to hear from you.

So far, there are at least 12 cases here in the Chicago area, with 2 in my neighborhood alone. A local elementary school was closed after a girl fell sick and had to be hospitalized, and a Loyola student caught it.

How well I remember the Hong Kong flu in 1968, which laid me on my back for 2 weeks with 104-degree fevers, and killed two kids in my neighborhood. A third of the school was out.

Yeah, yeah, yearly seasonal flu kills 35,000 or so people world wide. Well, the 1968 epidemic killed that many in this country alone, and over a million globally. And it's easy to dismiss that as "culling the herd" until one of those tens of thousands is someone you love, most likely someone young, at that.

Our health officials, at least, have the sense to be worried. But we should have closed the border immediately. China might have overreacted in the case of the avian flu and SARs, but their decisive, draconian steps might have saved many tens of thousands of lives. But we're too obsessed with a specious political correctness, along with always having to put on a happy face for the sake of the financial markets, to take these decisive steps.