I think the Hong Kong Hospital Authority is way over-reacting in their emergency response in locking up all the guests and hotel staff where the “25-year-old Mexican man with confirmed diagnosis of swine influenza” was staying. (Reminding myself of what HK had faced in the SARS crisis, I decided it is unwise and unfair to call HKHA’s action “stupid”.)
At the same time, I truly hope that they are right and I am wrong.
I was chatting with a friend from HK and my friend thought HK is setting a leading example to the world of how to response to H1N1 flu. Since a discussion on an appropriate public health policy reaction to H1N1 was way too long a topic for our short chat, I decided to not contradict my friend.
Anyway, New York Times’ Gail Collins said it well in her “Joe Biden, the Flu and You” and she conveyed some of my sentiment,
As the White House’s unfiltered talking head, Biden is the perfect warning bell to show the White House when things are veering out of control. A kind of mental canary in the governmental mine shaft.
As the new strain of flu spread around the country, you could imagine the president going over a mental to-do list: Monitor situation carefully. Check. Make sure the medical infrastructure is working to prepare for any worst-case scenario. Check.
Be careful not to scare the public silly so they start cowering in their homes, terrified to get on a plane or even board the subway. Whoops.
“If you’re out in the middle of a field and someone sneezes, that’s one thing. If you’re in a closed aircraft or a closed container or closed car or closed classroom, it’s a different thing,” Biden babbled happily on the “Today” show. He also assured Matt Lauer that he had warned his family away from subways and that he “wouldn’t go anywhere in confined places now,” but unfortunately Lauer did not inquire whether the Oval Office counts as free range.
Pursue this line of thinking and suddenly one sick child is shutting down an entire Texas public school system. Or we’re Egypt, where the government is slaughtering all the farmers’ pigs for no good reason, and Parliament members are waxing wroth about public safety flu hazards in a building where, as Brian Whitaker of The Guardian noted, the “upper house was carelessly wrecked by fire not long ago.”
All the current evidence suggests that the new flu being spread around by Americans is no more serious than — flu. If the government makes things sound too dire now, it compounds the chance that people might ignore warnings in the future when something worse is looming. [K: This is what I worry about the most because of the future impact on human behaviour when we have much more serious diseases.]
But Biden, channeling his Average Joe, was superworried — a signal to the White House that it was time to make the flu more boring. The administration quickly ratcheted up its talking points about covering your mouth when you cough and issued a hilarious set of revisionist translations that suggested the vice president was only talking about telling sick family members to avoid planes and subways.
Give Biden some credit. Who can deny his right to be immobilized with worry? In fact, one recent survey of 1,039 physicians showed that 63 percent believed “that there is some level of risk that the swine flu will result in a worldwide catastrophic pandemic.” This information comes from HCD Research, which is based in Flemington, N.J., and has an unparalleled willingness to race out and survey people about everything under the sun and then send me an e-mail about it. It is thanks to HCD Research that I know for a fact that Randy Jackson is the most popular judge on “American Idol.”
The real key to the physicians’ response is the phrase “some level.” If you interview a scientist about almost anything, they will tell you there is some level of risk. A while back, I talked to a prominent physicist who carefully explained that although the odds against all the oxygen molecules suddenly racing over to clump on one side of the room were really, really, really high, it could happen. And that if it did, it would be most unpleasant.
Anything might happen. The flu could suddenly become superlethal. Or, as we have learned from decades of movie-going, it could be innocuous on the surface but then turn its victims into zombies or giant walking cornstalks. And if any of that happens, I want you to remember that I said it was a serious concern.
No politician wants to be caught pooh-poohing a disastrous possibility, no matter what the odds. Look at what happened to Senator Susan Collins of Maine, who bloggers have been decrying for demanding that President Obama strip $870 million for pandemic flu preparedness out of the stimulus spending.
Now if you were Collins, you could explain that you were just trying to make the package smaller by taking out stuff that had little to do with job creation. (Or, if you are Michael Steele, the Republican National Committee chairman, you could tell CNN that the stimulus “had nothing to do with how pigs, why pigs stink,” which seems a little less helpful.) Nevertheless, this is not the week that you want to be known as the senator who reduced the money for flu prevention.
Semihysteria is the easy political path. Anxious Americans appreciate politicians’ eagerness to assure us that we’re not only right, we’re under-reacting — maybe being overly stoic when we should be camping out in the emergency room, just in case.
Take a deep breath. Wash your hands. And for Joe’s sake, stay out of closed containers.