WHO today declared we an influenza pandemic is underway (aka, phase 6), which is not news to anyone. This beast has been barreling long for at least 3 or 4 weeks and the reluctance to call it what it was was related to resistance from some of WHO’s member states (the UK, China and Japan have been often fingered as the chief culprits). The apparent lack of cases in Europe didn’t fool most experts. The EU was using a testing protocol designed to minimize the case count. It was refreshing not to have the US party to these kinds of shenanigans, but of course we had no opportunity: it started here in North America. Still, US health authorities have so far acquitted themselves fairly well. We are all in uncharted territory, and communicating risk when you don’t know the size or nature of the risk, is, well, risky. CDC continues to gather information and advise federal agencies, especially regarding general recommendations and vaccine issues. All pretty useful, but as we move into the heart of this pandemic, it will become of increasingly marginal value. The brunt of the pandemic will have to be managed locally. And there were are in big trouble.
Since the Reagan era we have been systematically disinvesting in the public sector and particularly in public health and the social safety nets that catch the weak and sick as they fall. It’s a Republican idea but too many cowardly and weak Democrats threw their lot in with these enemies of public health. Clinton did little to reverse it and in some ways accelerated it. The coup de grace, of course, was reserved for George W. Bush and the Republican congress post 1994, who pulled the trigger with satisfaction and enjoyment. Now we will all suffer the predictable consequences.
While flu is unpredictable, the consequences of destroying the public health infrastructure are not. The flu virus doesn’t know which of its victims voted to cut taxes and which didn’t, but it owes a special debt of gratitude to the former, even as it goes on to infect everyone.
The fact that WHO waited until the pandemic was well underway may have helped some individuals and governments to get used to the idea it wasn’t the end of the world. Yet we don’t know where it is going. We put up our first post almost the day the first novel virus diagnosis was made (April 22). That was when two cases of infection with a novel swine origin influenza virus were accidentally discovered in San Diego. It is now less than two months later. The virus has spread to 74 countries with almost 30,000 confirmed cases and maybe ten or twenty times that number not counted. It’s gone from the northern hemisphere, where it continues to circulate outside of normal flu season and continues to infect the young, to the southern hemisphere which is just entering its normal season for influenza. No one knows what it will do there, nor are we sure what it will do up here in the north. At one point it seemed like it might just peter out. Forget that. Then it was characterized as a “mild” flu (if there is such a thing). Now WHO is calling it of moderate severity. As I type this, it seems to be striking an awful lot of people around me.
Am I afraid? No. But I am more than a little angry that shortsighted and ideologically motivated policies pursued by shortsighted and selfish people have left my community less prepared to face this than we should be.
Live and learn. At least some of us will. Live, that is.