There's no escaping the swine flu

Obama now has to deal with plague and pestilence to add to his 100 days of crises, and swine flu is proving no complacent little piggy

You know things are bad when the Latino ‘air-kiss’ greeting is a no-no, as the World Health Organisation has now declared in the face of as swine flu crisis.

Living in Quebec, where the two-kiss is the minimum, is strange enough. How will the three-kiss Swiss deal with this, let alone a Norwegian mate of mine who insists on a five air-kiss minimum? Now, all off the agenda, no offence intended.

But seriously, and it is serious, the dramatic announcements from WHO are alarming. Armed with its new pandemic scale. with 6 being the worst, the WHO has pushed swine flu to grade 5, and admits still precious little is known about it other than like all influenzas it is unpredictable.

This imminent pandemic points to a glaring problem in our globalized world. Not its open borders, free travel and free trade. It is the inequality between the rich and the poor nations that will be glaringly obvious. With major health issues this inequality manifests itself in the numbers of people who cannot afford access to health care and therefore delay treatment despite being sick; in the quality of intensive care and numbers of doctors available; in the quality of surveillance of the population; and in the quality of living conditions. When many people share confined space, illness obviously spreads quickly. Or is it a coincidence that swine flu has spread quickly and severely through Mexico, and been largely contained and relatively mild in other nations like the US, New Zealand and Canada?

The WHO is obviously concerned about this inequity, prompting its plea to pharmaceutical companies to put aside normal competitive interests and work together in a stance of social responsibility.

WHO head Dr Margaret Chan declared “it really is all of humanity that is under threat”. Pretty sobering stuff, clearly designed to make any countries that have not put their health plans into action face the raw fact that now such action is imperative.

Being on the North American continent, there is no escaping the overwhelming nature of media coverage of this flu and reaction to it. In Canada the memory of the economically disastrous impact of SARS on the city of Toronto is still fresh. It is also spring time, when hundreds of migrant Mexican workers travel north to jobs in the agriculture sector and the last of the ‘snow birds’ (Canadians who escape the snow for warmer climes) come home, often from the beaches of Cancun. Face masks have appeared, but the SARS scanners have not been reinstated at the airports—yet.

Canadians know only too well the headache ahead for Mexico as its tourism industry will undoubtedly take more of a hit than Toronto’s did. So far Mexico reckons it's losing about $57 million a day, as cruise liners are giving Mexican ports an extra wide berth—as in no berth—flights are being cancelled or postponed indefinitely, restaurants are closed and the beaches are emptying.

And therein lies the dilemma for the politicians. When 36,000 people in the United States die every year from ordinary flu, what’s the big deal? Is this over-reaction?

Well, when you have networks scouring Mexico for “Ground Zero” of the swine flu, you know there is questionable hype. Equally when it becomes an issue over what to call the thing—don’t call it Mexican flu as that will impact Mexico, don’t call it swine flu as that will hit the valuable pork industry. How about just plain old H1N? After all, bird flu was H5N1. Not very catchy, really, so despite pork producers being quite correct in pointing out that no pigs have fallen ill, it seems destined to be known as swine flu.

While no-drama-Obama has been urging calm not alarm he’s the very one who should be throwing a tantrum given the piggies have stolen the limelight from his ‘first 100 days’ birthday. Sure he’s been delivered Arlen Specter—fresh from being bullied by his Republican colleagues—to boost his numbers in the Senate. But just think of the focus such a defection would have directed at the Republican meltdown under non-pandemic conditions. Losing a senator of 30 years, moderate though he may be.

Perhaps there should be no surprise for Obama, however. After 100 days of battling inherited crises, why not chuck in some plague and pestilence to round off the picture? If you ask me, it all shows how irrelevant the 100-day mark is. Has anyone checked whether Dick Cheney has been in Mexico recently?