Tag: swine flu

‘Behind the Headlines’? Despite the Headlines!

STRATFOR—a group I hadn’t heard of before—provides, in their words, “geopolitical intelligence - independent, non-ideological and non-partisan analysis and perspective that is unavailable anywhere else in the world.” They also say they provide the “intelligence behind the headlines.”

Well, I was struck—delighted, really—to see them outright contradict the headlines in a report of theirs that mercilessly skewers H1N1 (swine) flu fears:

It has been five months since the A(H1N1) influenza virus — aka the swine flu — climbed to the top of the global media heap, and with the start of the Northern Hemisphere’s annual flu season just around the corner, the topic is worth revisiting.

If you take only one fact away from this analysis, take this: The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) believes that hospitalization rates and mortality rates for A(H1N1) are similar to or lower than they are for more traditional influenza strains. And if you take two facts away, consider this as well: Influenza data are incomplete at best and rarely cross-comparable, so any assertions of the likelihood of mass deaths are little more than scaremongering bereft of any real analysis or, more important, any actual evidence.

One would expect “intelligence” reporting firms to have the same incentives as politicians and other media: drum up fear to drum up business. But there is value in providing actual facts and sound strategies for responding to world events. As a non-expert, I’m not able to evaluate the substance of the STRATFOR report or its conclusions, but I give it credibility as a statement against interest.

After the early ineptitude shown by the Obama Administration, I was beginning to think that the steady drumbeat of news about preparation for flu season was appropriate societal girding for what could be a notable disease outbreak. I am more inclined now to believe that we are flushing more money down the drain because of fears the administration generated.

Overreaction harms the country, and it is the responsibility of governments—if they take a role—to quell impulses toward overreaction when incidents of national significance occur.

The Cost of Flu Fears - and Our Ongoing Vulnerability

The ever-sensible Shaun Waterman has begun to tally the cost of overreaction to the fear outbreak inspired by the H1N1 flu strain. He reports in ISN Security Watch:

Even the precautions that you take against this kind of global flu pandemic could knock about 1.9 [or] 2 percent off global [economic production]. That’s about a trillion dollars,” according to journalist Martin Walker, who cited World Bank figures from a study last year.

The Economist reported last week that the crisis in Mexico was costing Mexico City’s service and retail industries $55m a day - not because of the handful of deaths but because of people’s reactions. And that was even before the national suspension of non-essential public activities called for this week by the authorities there, which was expected to double that cost.

Waterman also cites my joke about moving Vice President Biden to an undisclosed location in future crises - not for his protection or government continuity, but to keep him away from the media.

It’s comedic wrapping on a substantive point: As long as people look to government leaders in times of crises, leaders have a responsibility to communicate carefully, according to a plan, and with message discipline. If they don’t, the damage can be very high.

Even if all Americans knew to dismiss the words of the Vice President as if he’s a “Crazy Uncle Joe” - and they don’t - foreign tourists certainly don’t know that. Biden harmed the country simply by speaking off the cuff.

Here, an outbreak of flu appears to have caused billions of dollars in damage to the world economy. One billion lost to the U.S. economy is about 145 deaths (using the current $6.9 million valuation for a human life). When overreactions restrict economic activity, that reduces wealth and thus health and longevity.

Now, imagine what might happen if the United States encountered a novel, directed threat - some kind of attack that inspires widespread concern. Will Vice President Biden and officials from a half-dozen agencies rush forth with personal observations and speculation? The results could be devastating, especially to a country that is already suffering economically.

People die from poor situation management, and it makes Americans worse off. Political leaders should not get a free pass for failing to communicate well just because it’s hard to do.

The Obama Administration should learn from its many errors in handling the rather benign H1N1 flu situation. It should train up for communicating in the event of a real emergency. If the Obama Administration fails to soothe nerves in the event of some future terrorist attack, that will be a clear failure of leadership.

Quelling Overreaction Is Part of the Job

On Sunday’s Meet the Press, David Gregory pressed a trio of federal officials about how comments on swine flu like Vice President Biden’s have caused overreactions across the country, such as the diversion of a plane because a passenger had flu-like symptoms, the cancellation of a rap concert, and a variety of other dislocations in American life.

Acting director of the Centers for Disease Control Dr. Richard Besser said:

Well, y’know, everybody is going to deal with their concerns in different ways, and that’s the nature of people. What we can do is try and tell them what the risks are - what do we know - share information as we have it, and continue to hit the messages of those things that can be really effective.

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius lamely used the fact that people are flooding emergency rooms as an opportunity to promote health care reform … So that panicked insured people would flood doctors’ offices?

If government officials are going to manage a situation like this - and doubts have been raised that they should - their obligation is not just to report, but to actually manage. Allowing a cacophony of government voices to drive erratic behavior by people across the land is harmful to the country for all the resources it wastes.

The Obama Administration should have a disciplined plan for handling situations like this. The administration’s disorganized response here is a signal of the truly awful reaction we could expect should something serious happen, like a terrorist attack. Terrorism, of course, works by inducing self-injurious overreaction on the part of the victim state, so overreaction must be avoided.

This incident reveals that the country is exceedingly vulnerable to terrorism because communications plans are evidently not in place.

(The administration’s plan for any terrorist attack should prioritize moving Vice President Biden to an undisclosed location. Not for his security or for continuity of government - so he won’t appear in the media!)

Mixed Messages on Swine Flu

The government has taken the sensible step of creating a website to disseminate information on the Swine Flu.  There’s even a “Swine Flu & You” section.

Unfortunately, someone forgot to tell Vice President Biden.

On the Today Show, Biden lauded the government’s focus on identified vectors and not on a wholesale closing of the border with Mexico or shutting down commercial airline traffic. Then he contradicted this rational message by saying he “wouldn’t go anywhere in confined places now” and discourages travel by plane, subway, or automobile.

No word on whether this will impact administration plans to use “high-speed rail” to revolutionize transportation in America.

The Global Economy Is Not Immune to Swine Flu

World governments should be careful not to play politics with the Mexican swine flu outbreak. The health consequences should of course be rigorously addressed—but without adding economic consequences, which is what several countries appear poised to do.

Public health scares have a history of seeping into trade policy without anything resembling sufficient consideration of the evidence. Governments in Russia and East Asia are already banning pork exports from Mexico, even though there is zero evidence that they pose a health hazard. It hearkens back to unfounded bans of U.S. beef in recent years by the European Union and South Korea.

If the U.S. government jumps on board, U.S. exports could be targeted for retaliatory trade actions. One quarter of U.S. pork production is exported, as well as billions of dollars of our soybeans used as feed by foreign hog farmers.

Exploiting this crisis could turn what is so far a manageable health problem into an unnecessary trade and diplomatic conflict. Obviously the global economy does not need the extra strain.

Poor Situation Management

Part of controlling the damage from disasters, terrorists attacks, and other national public incidents is controlling public reaction. So it is with the current swine flu “public health emergency.” So far, there have been twenty confirmed cases of swine flu in the United States.

In terms of managing reaction, there’s good and bad in the following quote from this morning’s Washington Post: “ ‘Clearly we all have individual responsibility for dealing with this situation,’ said deputy national security adviser John O. Brennan.”

The good: Brennan is correct on the merits. Controlling flu is mostly a matter of good hygiene.

The bad: A deputy national security adviser should not give quotes about flu outbreaks to a national newspaper. His title circumscribes his responsibilities, and he conveys wrongly by speaking about the matter that a (still largely potential) swine flu outbreak is a national security event. It is not under any reasonable definition of the phrase “national security.”

Just like the U.S. president shouldn’t be perceived as occupying himself with pirates off the Somali coast - the administration handled that situation well - a national security adviser should not weigh in on an inchoate outbreak of flu.

The result from suggesting that the flu affects national security could be more damage than the outbreak itself: canceled travel, reduced trade and commerce, pulling kids from school, staying home from work. An infantilized country is a weaker country, not a safer one.