By MARSHA MERCER
Ronald Reagan said that government is not the solution to our problems; government is the problem. To those who still share his view, I have two words: swine flu.
The current global swine flu outbreak is a reminder that we need a robust, competent federal government to cope with problems individuals can’t solve, even with frequent hand washing.
One of the lessons of Hurricane Katrina is that people may like small government in theory, but in times of crisis they demand government that’s responsive and effective. To be sure, swine flu isn’t a full-fledged crisis, not a pandemic -- not yet. And yes, every year 36,000 people in the United States die of ordinary flu-related causes.
As I write this, one person in the United States, a child in Texas, has died of swine flu.
His critics cite those statistics to argue that President Barack Obama is overreacting. If George W. Bush’s response to Katrina was too little too late, they say, Obama’s proactive stand on swine flu is too much too soon. Obama can’t win.
He’s damned if he does -- and damned if he doesn’t -- pull out all the stops to protect the country from swine flu. He’s asking for $1.5 billion to track the virus and build a supply of anti-viral drugs.
“Every American should know that that their entire government is taking the utmost precautions and preparations,” Obama said at a news conference Wednesday night.
Skeptics complain that the news media are hyping the story. But it’s news when the Centers for Disease Control activates its emergency-response system and tweets the latest on its Twitter page, CDCemergency. People want to know what Health and Human
Services officials say in briefings and post on the Web.
Some critics suggest that Obama could be using Swine Influenza A (H1N1) to divert attention from the weak economy. And yet, imagine the outcry if this or any president ignored the potential for mass infection and economic disruption.
If travel to and within the United States is curtailed, if large events are canceled, if fear keeps people from going out, the recession will deepen and last longer. The potential cost in lives is mind-boggling.
The 1918 Spanish flu pandemic killed more than 50 million people worldwide, including 675,000 in the United States. About 70,000 in the United States died in the 1957 flu pandemic, among up to 2 million who died worldwide.
Go to PandemicFlu.gov for more on the current outbreak and an historical perspective. Check out the “Pandemic Influenza Storybook” section of the site for reminiscences and state-by-state accounts of the 1918 flu.
Before the first swine flu cases were reported, Obama’s critics were already upset that he has gone in so many directions. He continues to make the case for moving on many fronts. He mentioned the swine flu outbreak when he called for increasing scientific research spending to 3 percent of GDP, from 2.6 percent.
He said at the National Academy of Sciences, “there are those who say we cannot afford to invest in science, that support for research is somehow a luxury at moments defined by necessities. I fundamentally disagree. Science is more essential for our prosperity, our security, our health, our environment and our quality of life than it has ever been before.”
Obama has asked people to wash their hands, cover sneezes, avoid the sick and stay home when they are sick.
As important as those measures are to limit exposure, we need government to provide trustworthy information, planning and resources. Many people, however, fear they can’t depend on government to give them solid information or to protect them. The tainted-food episodes over the last few years – spinach, jalapenos, peanuts – have eroded confidence in government’s ability to safeguard health.
The Food and Drug Administration, overwhelmed by its many duties, is viewed as unable to police the nation’s food supply, especially in a global market.
While no president can stop a flu pandemic by decree or dollars, Obama has the chance to write a prescription that will begin to restore faith in government as a solution and not the problem.
© 2009 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.