So apparently everyone is talking about the swine flu. Now as a global health student, and someone who lived in S. East Asia during SARS, I feel like I have a decent grasp on the difference between paranoia and precaution. At first, when I heard about the swine flu, I thought wow, don't go to Mexico. But that's it. I didn't think much of it. I'll wash my hands, cook pork thoroughly (because you know cooking kills the virus, so you CAN'T get sick from EATING pork. newsflash). And drink OJ and other immune system-y things so that I won't get sick.
About a week later, it got bigger on the news, with cases increasing in Mexico, as well as in the US, and some cases even found in New Zealand. But apparently at the same time as case counts were going up, so were reports of self-doubt: was the US media making too big of a "splash" of swine flu? Was this the typical example of the media market exploiting public fear in order to make stories? (I have a friend working at a newspaper who says that even reporters are grappling with these questions and examining how their take on the event could affect the public's view.) Peopel are asking, what SHOULD we worry about and what SHOULDN'T we worry about? I got a sense that Americans were trying to grapple with "staying cool" but not trying to be total public health idiots.
I guess, the point of this blog isn't about whether this swine flu thing is REALLY a public health crisis or not. Because the word "crisis" is subjective. We can only do what we think is best--whether that be wearing a mask, quarantining yourself, or staying at home and washing your hands. I'm not trying to tell you whether or not you should be worried. I trust that people will be smart. However, I'm curious: what is the appropriate way, or rather, the smart way that governments should handle epidemics like this? How do you make decisions, when you are trying to corner a moving target? What is the best way to protect your people? How do you walk the fine line between precaution and paranoia?
Governments around the world have responded differently. China, South Korea, and Hong Kong have enacted some kind of quarantine. China has even gone to restrict travel from Mexico. Several other Latin American countries have also restricted travel from Mexico. Meanwhile, in the latest WHO update, they say that restricting travel will not do anything in stopping the spread of the virus, and instead will only cause global disruption. The US so far has not issued any travel regulations. These are not easy decisions to make. Suspending travel or even making some sort of regulation on travelers has political and economic connotations and consequences. (ie. I'm not sure that Mexico is particularly happy with these decisions.) What is worse? A potential "pandemic" or worsening a developing economy?
Like I said, I lived in Singapore when SARS happened. The media in Singapore and other Asian countries, praised Singapore's actions as exemplary. Temperature scans at every entrance to a hospital, in the airports. Masks everywhere. Schools shut down. They had everything in control within a week. I saw the two extremes of government response to public health crises: Hardline, and completely negligent. The question is: is there such a thing as a middle ground when it comes to questions of public health and safety?
newslink with some examples of what has been done