I first read Barbara Ehrenreich in 1971 when she wrote The American Health Empire: Power, Profits, and Politics with her (then) husband John Ehrenreich (Health PAC, 1971). She was by then a PhD in cell biology (Rockefeller University) and anti-war activist. We traveled in the same circles and I knew her slightly at the time. Her next book, Witches, Midwives, and Nurses: A History of Women Healers (with Deirdre English) was a new reading of women in medical history. It was an influential text in the emerging women’s health movement. Since then she has published many books, several making the best seller lists and throughout an astute and still influential observer. Now she has penned a brief comment on the the alleged swine flu vaccine supply problem and who’s to blame. And I find myself in complete agreement with her:
In July, the federal government promised to have 160 million doses of H1N1 vaccine ready for distribution by the end of October. Instead, only 28 million doses are now ready to go, and optimism is the obvious culprit. “Road to Flu Vaccine Shortfall, Paved With Undue Optimism,” was the headline of a front page article in the October 26th New York Times. In the conventional spin, the vaccine shortage is now “threatening to undermine public confidence in government.” If the federal government couldn’t get this right, the pundits are already asking, how can we trust it with health reform? (Barbara Ehrenreich via Tom Dispatch)
We just heard this from alleged libertarian but anti-choice whack job, Ron Paul (who was right on the Iraq war, proving that even nut cases can get some things right). Her response?
But let’s stop a minute and also ask: Who really screwed up here — the government or private pharmaceutical companies, including GlaxoSmithKline, Novartis, and three others that had agreed to manufacture and deliver the vaccine by late fall? Last spring and summer, those companies gleefully gobbled up $2 billion worth of government contracts for vaccine production, promising to have every American, or at least every American child and pregnant woman, supplied with vaccine before trick-or-treating season began.
According to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, the government was misled by these companies, which failed to report manufacturing delays as they arose. Her department, she says, was “relying on the manufacturers to give us their numbers, and as soon as we got numbers we put them out to the public. It does appear now that those numbers were overly rosy.”
This is not Ehrenreich’s attempt to hold the Obama administration blameless. Far from it. She points out that trusting in the word of Big Pharma, who wouldn’t have bothered with a flu vaccine if they didn’t think governments would give them a guaranteed market and with such a guarantee didn’t even have to bother to invest in any new technology, using eggs as they have done for half a century. Slow, tricky, inefficient, but who cares when you can invest capital plant in erectile dysfunction drugs?
Let the private insurance companies manage health financing; let profit-making hospital chains deliver health care; let Big Pharma provide safe and affordable medications. As it happens, though, all these entities have a priority that regularly overrides the public’s health, and that is, of course, profit — which has led insurance companies to function as “death panels,” excluding those who might ever need care, and for-profit hospitals to turn away the indigent, the pregnant, and the uninsured.
We have complained that flu planning under both the Bush and Obama administrations turned planning dogma on its head, from plan for the worst, hope for the best to plan for the best (that an effective vaccine will be produced in time and be efficiently deployed) and hope the worst won’t happen. We’ve called for regional international vaccine institutes to share the latest technologies under public licenses to supply the global need for vaccines. It could be done through intergovernmental agencies like WHO or UNICEF.
But we haven’t done that. We haven’t even thought about doing it. So the Bush and Obama administrations and both Republican and Democratic Congresses have put their faith and trust in the least humane and most untrustworthy vaccine source: the private sector.
If your flu symptoms become serious for more than four hours, call your doctor.