Unserious About Flu

The World Health Organization announces we may be on the edge of a global flu pandemic. Americans across the political spectrum immediately set about doing what what we do best — blame each other.

When news got out that the Obama Administration was slow to learn about the disease threat, righties held that up as proof of incompetence. On some rightie blogs word that the flu came from Mexico caused a great cry to toughen up border patrols. Apparently, flu can only be carried by people without proper documentation.

Fred Thompson woke up for a few minutes to charge that President Obama is using the flu threat for political gain.

Lefties had just as much fun pointing out that congressional Republicans (nudged by Karl Rove) insisted that epidemic preparedness appropriations be struck from the stimulus bill.

The truth is there’s plenty of blame to share. Part of the reason the Obama Administration was slow to respond is that the Department of Health and Human Services is headless. And it is headless because Republicans are holding up the confirmation of Kathleen Sebelius for petty ideological reasons that have nothing to do with the secretary job to which she is nominated (e.g., she supports the work of abortion provider Dr. George Tiller). Because there is no Secretary at HHS, 20 other top positions at the department are unfilled. Blame Republicans, not the Obama Administration, for that.

(Naturally, Concerned Women for America and Glenn Beck think the swine flu news is just a tactic to confirm the Sebelius nomination.)

However, if you look back over the past few years, you can find politicians on both sides of the aisles of Congress who voted to shortchange epidemic preparedness. So let’s get the finger pointing out of our systems and think about what might be ahead.

Swine flu may or may not be something to panic about, yet. Those of us who remember the Great Swine Flu Panic of 1776 1976 have reason to be skeptical. But there’s an article about the Panic by Patrick Di Justo at Salon, and by his account the Panic was an extreme overreaction to a minor, contained outbreak of flu. What we’ve got going on now already is a much bigger deal. See also a history of Asian flu pandemics at About.com and Eugene Robinson, “Worth Worrying About.”

My understanding is that it’s impossible to know how dangerous, or not, this flu really is. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take precautions until we find bodies in the streets, of course. For now, wash your hands a lot and try to stay out of densely packed crowds.

And also, people, can we get serious about, you know, taking care of the nation instead of just scoring points on each other? Let’s make an effort.

8 thoughts on “Unserious About Flu

  1. Those of us who remember the Great Swine Flu Panic of 1776

    Not to be unseemly, but just how old are you? You remember something that happened 233 years ago?

    On a more serious note; I do rather have to question the HHS being rendered ineffective by not having the Secretary confirmed. That position has very little to do with the day-to-day operation of the department, and the picture of all of the career professionals sitting around helpless waithing for her to tell them what to do just doesn’t scan for me.

  2. Oops, I sort of missed the “20 other top positions are unfilled.” part. My bad. Still, I think my commemt would have some validity, as the actual work occurs at lower levels. The actual pandemic effort would be CDC in Atlanta which is fully staffed and, I believe, has a current director.

  3. …actually I’ve been fighting a fruitless, lonely battle trying to point that many of those positions are not, in fact, unfilled, but instead merely have not had a Senate-confirmed appointee installed. Many of them (if not most or all of them) have people serving in those positions in an ‘acting’ capacity and many of those serving in an ‘acting’ capacity (if not most or all of them) are probably just as capable – and maybe more so – than any new Senate-approved nominee coming in from the outside…

    I’ve been fighting this little battle because it appeared to me to be a theme that originated in Winger World as a means of pointing out some incapability or failing by Obama. That led directly to Democrats pointing out that most of that “vacancy” problem lay at the clay-like feet of the Republicans, but such a response misses the point that the Federal bureaucracy is a force of nature that adheres to many natural laws. One of them is “nature abhors a vacuum”; no job needing doing – especially at the management level – goes utterly vacant…

  4. Hey, I remember the Great Swine Flu Panic of ’76. And there are days when it feels like it had to’ve been 1776. But I digress.

    I think we all ought to keep politics and finger-pointing out of it, and just pay close attention to limiting exposure to the new virus.

    Oh, and this is waaay OT, but could this be the sign of an epidemic of a different sort? Arlen Specter just switched to the Democratic Party!

  5. I worked for HHS for 24 years until my retirement in May 2008 in the Washington DC metropolitan area. On the whole, whoever was HHS Sec seldom impacted me at my level until Donna Shalala showed up. Secretary Shalala implemented a quality of worklife program for employees because when she toured all the facilities, she found many offices with “Dilbert” comic strips pasted up in various and sundry places. Her goal was to keep the employees happy enough so we did not feel the need to tape up the current “Dilbert” comic strip. Life did improve during those years and were my most enjoyable of my career.

    However, once Bush took office, there were many, many negative changes–along with a lot of vacant top positions. Additionally, those vacant positions were filled by people of the quality of “Brownie” from FEMA. When Mike Leavitt came on board, his staff called a particular Congressman’s office to schedule an appointment with him and Sec. Leavitt. Unfortunately, they seemed to be the only people in DC who didn’t know that that Congressman had died two weeks before they tried to schedule the appointment. It was front page news in all the papers. What an embarrassment! Those last seven years were the worst years of my 31 year career in the Federal Government. I worked for the most stupid people I had ever met; but, they apparently had an in with the Bush crowd so got jobs they were not qualified for. Thus, vacancies now along with Bush people embedded in HHS and good career people like myself who were driven out those years could be very detrimental to the public health function of HHS.

  6. The concensus around work here is that this is just one more in a long line of animal related illnesses that don’t amount to much. Think bird flu and west nile virus.

    Not to say this isn’t real … I’m just concerned that when/if ‘the big one’ does come, people won’t pay attention until it’s too late.

    Boy who cried wolfy and all that.


Comments are closed.