The Futility Monster

He'll pointlessly derive more enjoyment out of your resources than you


Posted by The Futility Monster on July 10, 2009 @ 01:28

Damn you, piggies! It's all your fault!

Damn you, piggies! It's all your fault!

It’s funny how a few years ago the country was obsessed over a few dead birds on a beach in some Gord-foresaken (unintentional typo amusingly left in) part of Scotland because of the apparent dangers of bird flu, and all despite the fact that there was no evidence that humanity was ever in any danger from it.

There was never any proof that bird flu would mutate into a form that humans could pass between them. But the media worked itself into a frenzy, as usual, and we got lots of talk about exclusion zones and DEFRA vets going in in their biohazard suits. All made for wonderful TV.

Now, though, it is possible we are actually in a genuinely challenging situation. Due to the genetic closeness of humans with pigs, swine flu is indeed a great danger to us. We are fortunate that, right now, this present bout of swine flu is not a particularly vicious strain in its own right.

This time, however, the media are playing it cool. Largely because the percentage of people dying from swine flu is, or seems to be, lower than the percentage who die from seasonal flu. And, that is actually quite refreshing. There is no need to panic or alarm the public over swine flu.

But I’m beginning to sense that maybe we’re just getting a little complacent over it. Did you realise that there are, as of today, nearly 10,000 cases of it in the UK? And this figure is rising exponentially. Health authorities in parts of the country, particularly London and Birmingham, have already given up trying to contain it and have moved on to the treatment phase.

Now, I don’t wish to be an alarmist; as that would be rather hypocritical after all the grief I give the British media. But when even the government suggests that by August there could be as many as 100,000 new cases a day, it is fair to say that, even despite its low potential for deaths, it is going to be one of the biggest, if not the biggest, events of this year: one which will have significant implications.

First – the NHS is going to be under tremendous strain. It just about copes with the normal winter flu. How will it survive the potential for extraordinary levels of illness, and at a time when budgets are going to tighten?

Secondly, the economy. Recovery is the big expectation right now, but it is at an extremely tender phase. Can that continue in the face of huge increases in absenteeism and drops in productivity due to millions of extra people off work? What if public transport networks are closed or major public gatherings cancelled to try to limit the spread? That’s only going to hurt business even more.

Thirdly, this thing has its own momentum. Because hygiene practices are so poor (speaking from the anecdotal experience of serving the general public every day!)  – and so many people travel on over-crowded public transport every day, once this thing is out there almost half the country is going to end up with it. And very probably an effective vaccine to pre-empt it is not going to be with us in time.

Fourthly, those who invested in biotech or pharmaceutical companies are likely to be very big winners. Which makes me feel very uneasy. As always, someone is going to make vast sums of money out of a terrible situation. Doesn’t seem very ethical to me.

The big unknown is whether it’s going to return to us in a more deadly form in a “second wave”. Let’s assume, however, that the vaccines are in place for that, and we manage to avoid this scenario.

Finally – what about the politics? Gordon Brown almost looked good when he tackled foot and mouth early in his Premiership. It may seem a little silly, but there are good headlines to be had from handling a major public health incident well. If the government is able to show that they have been well prepared for this, and have dealt with it effectively, then no harm will be done at all.

The only problem is just how large the final bill will be.

In truth, it really is something the country could do without right now.

But you can’t put a price on public health. Not with an election looming…

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