For the last eight years, there has been no shortage of things to worry about-- Bin Laden, Al Queda, Saddam Hussein, Anthrax, Bird Flu, Katrina, sub-prime mortgages, health care costs, gas pump prices, unemployment, stock price plunges and now we have H1N1, the non-Kosher virus formerly known as Swine Flu.
The news media is pigging out (sorry, I'll try to contain myself) with 24/7 coverage of the potential pandemic and breathless reports that this is the new Black Death and millions could die. According to MSNBC, "H1N1 swine flu is seen as the biggest risk since H5N1 avian flu re-emerged in 2003, killing 257 people of 421 infected in 15 countries. In 1968 a "Hong Kong" flu pandemic killed about 1 million people globally, and a 1957 pandemic killed about 2 million. Seasonal flu kills 250,000 to 500,000 people in a normal year, including healthy children in rich countries." However, as I write this, the World Health Organization (WHO) reports that, only 12 people have died so far of this outbreak of H1N1.
To put all of this in further perspective, it is useful to compare these numbers to the annual number of deaths from other causes. According to WHO:
1 million people die from malaria each year
2 million from AIDS
2 million from air pollution
7.4 million from cancer
17.5 million from cardiovascular disease
1.6 million from tuberculosis
In other words, we KNOW that 31.5 million people will die each year from causes that in large part could be prevented, but 7 deaths a pandemic makes? Have we, as Simon Jenkins suggests in The Guardian all gone demented? Perhaps. But for the sake of argument, let's assume that WHO knows what it is talking about and that a lot of people could get sick from this virus. The question then becomes whether it is the virus we should fear or our ability to react to it.
Like any other disease, the first question should always be what is causing it and how can we prevent it, not the pharmaceutical industry driven approach of how we can (profitably) treat it with drugs such as Tamiflu, which as I noted during the bird flu scare, is made by a company in which former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfield has a significant financial stake.
Another critical point is that unlike birds that can fly pretty much anywhere, human and pig interaction is for the most part limited to farms, especially factory farms, and circumstantial evidence indicates that this outbreak may have originated at a Smithfield Foods facility in Perote, Mexico. Grist reports that, "Smithfield operates massive hog-raising operations Perote, Mexico, in the state of Veracruz, where the outbreak originated. The operations, grouped under a Smithfield subsidiary called Granjas Carroll, raise 950,000 hogs per year." According to Grist, 30% of the population living near the plant have become ill with flu-like symptoms which they believe is due contamination from the hog factory.
But as Narco News points out, the real culprit in swine flu may be NAFTA, which went into effect the same year that Smithfield opened its Mexican facility in the aftermath of being hit with huge fines for environmental pollution in the U.S.: "The so-called 'swine flu' exploded because an environmental disaster simply moved to Mexico where environmental and worker safety laws, if they exist, are not enforced against powerful multinational corporations."
The issue of whether agri-business run factory farms are the source of the problem has been all but ignored by the U.S. media. Instead we are being told to stay home if sick and seek medical care if really sick. Nice advice presuming you have paid sick leave benefits and health insurance. And even for those able to seek medical care, there are real questions about the adequacy of whether our problem-plagued healthcare infrastructure to handle a massive additional medical incident. As John Nichols points out, we need to reinstate funding for pandemic response; disaster preparedness and infrastructure maintenance aren't luxuries, they are a necessity, something we surely should have learned from Hurricane Katrina.
So while we need to take this threat seriously, we need to do so in the context of the many existing health pandemics that already exist, we need to take steps to insure that our healthcare system itself is healthy and we need to address the root causes of what allowed the conditions in which the H1N1 virus manifested and take the necessary steps to correct policies that endanger public health.