Busy and practical II

Saturday, 2 May 2009 

untitledTPS Health Tip: Do not do this

Having no other problems to worry about in the Queensland health system, its Chief Medical Officer, Dr Young, has quite sensibly decided to concentrate on one it doesn’t yet have – the swine flu epidemic. Dr Young has advised Queenslanders to stockpile food:

Have it in your house ready just in preparation – some stocks of tinned food and frozen vegetables in the freezer, that sort of thing.

But reassuringly:

There’s no need to stockpile water.

But a little confusingly, perhaps, to those now crowding the aisles of the Toowoomba Woolies (Clifford Gardens branch), she also said:

We’ll be telling people to try and maintain distances from other people using the one-metre rule, because it’s the spread of droplets in the air that infect people. So if you stand a metre away from someone else, you’re less likely to get infected.

That is true.

Observant readers will have picked up the future tense in Dr Young’s last warning and may be wondering why she has decided to let us in on what she will be saying at some point in the hypothetical future. But then, never under-estimate the medical profession’s eagerness to meddle in social policy, instead of doing what they are paid quite well to do, fix us up after doing whatever it is we choose to fill our time with.

The Federal Health Minister has distanced herself from such scare-mongering:

We want people to be aware of the risk of this disease, we want people to be taking sensible planning steps but we don’t want panic.

But then seems to think there might be something in this stock-piling, but more as a panic-buying-while-you-shop:

It’s very important that we don’t have a rush on products that people, just during the course of their ordinary shopping, might think about whether they have some of these extra supplies.

Excusing the muddled message, Roxon’s slapping down of the Queensland CMO’s encouragement of panic-buying is right. So where could have Dr Young got the idea?

From the government’s own advice, apparently. In a 132 page ‘pandemic’ manual issued to medics, media and the public, the government recommended stocking up the larder and locking ourselves in front of the telly for two weeks. The government’s distancing from its own emergency plan is causing a problem with its message, as the SMH reports:

“I agree that is it confusing,” the spokesman said, admitting he had not read the pandemic plan despite being employed to answer questions about it from national media. “The manual may say people should be preparing but we don’t want a run at the shops,” he said.

So a sort of ‘walk don’t run’ around the shop to do your panic-buying, which explains Roxon’s mixed message.

The government’s problem here is that in its eagerness to appear relevant it has caught itself up with international authorities looking to do the same. The manual was meant to kick in when the WHO issued its phase five pandemic alert, which it has now done. This alert was supposed to come when, by WHO’s own guidelines, we have entered the pandemic stage and gone beyond the point when a pandemic was not yet a foregone conclusion (phase four) and is now imminent. Perhaps when the government issued the manual, it thought entering this stage might be triggered by a bit more than the death of child visiting a town just over the border from Mexico.

Roxon’s reaction shows that this is not a straightforward case of scare-mongering by the Rudd government as Bolt is suggesting. The question here is one of authority. There is a tendency for the government to over-react in a bid to look relevant and in control. Yet it is also aware that there is a danger that it will look out of control in the event of a panic and worse still, may not have the authority to be believed if something does actually happen. As we know in SA, beating up bikies after a panic is fairly easy. But as we are seeing with the economic crisis, looking in control with an international problem is a bit of a trickier balancing act.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Saturday, 2 May 2009.

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Comments

3 responses to “Busy and practical II”

  1. Ric on 2nd May 2009 9:29 pm

    I look forward to a post on the defence white paper.

    Re pigs and bugs, I keep hearing analogies to 1918-19 but in the developed world, in a time of otherwise good healthcare, isn’t this overdoing it? If I recall my epidemiology class they talked about how it was an unprecedented movement of people, and also how people were in poor health after WWI.

    I also wonder whether public officials more than ever, are acting as if they are right now preparing their scripts for the royal commission or inquiry that will take place after the event is over.

    “Commissioner, some might say I overreacted but at least the public wellbeing was protected”

    “Comissioner, it is all very well with the benefit of hindsight but we didn’t know it would be this bad”

    Many will opt for the former.

  2. Ozymandias on 4th May 2009 9:26 am

    Perhaps the old anti-terror slogan “Be alert but not alarmed” is more apt in the H1N1 context? Obviously, governments do not want their citizens to panic, but reasonable precautions are… well… reasonable. And of course governments want people to know that they are at least monitoring the situation and making adequate preparations to deal with any potential outbreaks of disease. Imagine the carping chorus from their Oppositions if governments said nothing.

  3. The Piping Shrike on 4th May 2009 9:59 am

    Roxon is now playing down the threat and the Queensland CMO clearly seems to have been ticked off.

    It must have seen the danger to its credibility of over-reacting. In politics, the precautionary principle is double-sided.

    It seems in this case the government was caught up in WHO’s premature escalation of the pandemic threat, so carefully analysed and summed up here.

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