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It’s not often that I don my white coat in public, but the absolutely shocking coverage of swine flu is driving me to despair. A classic example of piss-poor reporting is The Sun, where the story “It could be flu” ticks the following boxes:

  1. Sheer scientific illiteracy.
  2. Doom mongering.
  3. Engendering panic.
  4. Blaming the government (naturally).

Before addressing these points, let’s just look at the meaning of the word pandemic, which is being used over and over again to lend an appropriately apocalyptic tone to the reporting. A pandemic is an incidence of disease where there is transmission between humans over a large area. So, people can catch it off each other, and people are catching it off each other around the world (which given the globalised nature of travel, is highly unsurprising- more on the global nature of disease later though). Yes, a worry, but the 4 horsemen won’t be galloping down a street near your anytime soon.

So, moving on. In no particular order, here is some of the absolute crap that I’ve read/been force-fed by 24 hour news:

“We might not have enough antibiotics to combat swine flu.”

Antibiotics kill BACTERIA (small, unicellular life forms such as TB, E. Coli, and MRSA) whereas flu is a VIRUS (not alive, just a complex biological machine that hijacks cellular machinery of things that are alive in order to replicate itself). So even if we had all the antibiotics in the world, they wouldn’t do anything for swine flu because swine flu is a VIRUS and not a BACTERIA (still following at the back?).

“Scientists yesterday warned the pig virus could mutate yet again — by “mating” with lethal bird flu strain H5N1 to become even more powerful.”

Viruses mating. Nice. To reiterate the last point, VIRUSES ARE NOT ALIVE. They replicate themselves by hijacking things that are. Yes, there is a small possibility of viruses recombining (not mating) but there is also a statistical chance of Lord Lucan winning the Grand National on Shergar dressed as Elvis. Or me winning the lottery. On which note…

“Britain’s doctors will use a LOTTERY to deicde which swine flu victims get intensive care during a pandemic”

Well, a) we’re in a pandemic already, but that’s not neccessarily cause to go and hide in a cave with 3 years supply of pot noodles and b) if we get to the point where the health service is near collapse (which we won’t) then we’re all screwed anyway because there’ll be hardly anyone left to run the country/economy. What does The Sun want? A doctor and a nurse for everyone in the country?

MEXICO…….176 flu deaths, 49 confirmed cases, 2,500 suspected — including boy [my underlining]. UNITED STATES….1 death plus 131 confirmed cases of swine flu.”

Tragic as any death is, let’s get some proportion here. 36,000 people died in the US last year of influenza. That’s all kinds of flu. 1 person has died of this one kind of flu.

Will the newspapers be held to account for the inevitable pressure scare stories place on the NHS (people getting worried and going down the GP because they snorted whilst laughing)? Will they balls. Of course, we have to remain vigilant about disease, but the things that are being recommended (catch coughs and sneezes in a tissue, bin the tissue, and wash your hands) are things we should do as a matter of our daily routine. Basic personal hygiene will prevent all manner of sniffles and snot. And if you have got a runny nose, or found yourself enjoying the film Babe a little too much recently, then don’t panic. You won’t wake up tomorrow with trotters: chances are you have a cold. If you are worried, then get it checked, of course, but the health services really do know what they’re doing and the government has very well rehearsed plans in place should things get nastier.

On a broader note, the recurrence of public health as a global issue raises the moral imperative of lifting the world’s poor out of poverty to a practical one (these things more often than not come out of poor, overcrowded, insanitary environmnts in Mexico and Asia). In a sense more literal than any time in human history, we are all our brother’s keeper. The health of the poorest people on this planet is directly linked to the health of all of us, and until we emanciapte the world’s poor from poverty, diesease, ignorance, squalor and idleness we will continue to live in a world characterised by insecurity and fear.

I ate in college last night, funnily enough getting the chance to talk to Prof Bogdanor about hung parliaments. Interesting stuff. Anyway, despite the awful wine and lamb that was over-done, discussion flowed and the conversation moved on to the PM. The general consensus was that he isn’t finished, though looking at polling today, that confidence may be overplaced.

I think this view is right though: Gordon Brown has been in office less than 12 months. The media generated hype at the beginning of his Premiership was as unrealistic as the media generated gloom that exists now. Events have played a large part of course: a lot of blame for the current predicament went to the Bank of England for providing the advice on not to bail out Northern Rock sooner and therefore compounding
the sense that the government was reacting to events rather than taking control of them. Again, I think this has some credibility: whilst the argument of moral hazard is fine for economists and theorists, in practical political terms no government could ever let a bank go down.

Events aside, I think that a large part of the problem is still of a presentational nature: as Simon Jenkins points out this morning, policy detail is not what voters want to hear right now. Rather, the government needs to show that they understand that the cost of fuel and food rising and that they are worried about their jobs and making the next mortgage payment. It still baffles me that cutting the base rate of income tax from 22% to 20% has been ignored in the wake of the 10% fiasco: if only we’d increased the personal allowance enough to negate the effect of abolishing the 10p band, I feel we’d be in a lot less trouble now.

Despite the need for better presentation, it is still heartening that the government still wants to end child poverty. James Purnell rightly acknowledges this as a unifying theme in Labour politics. To that I say lets get on with it then. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation estimate that it will take another £4bn to be committed before 2010 to stay on target: as someone who has argued for fiscal control elsewhere, I’m not about to call for an extra spending commitment. Rather, the sale of a few assets could generate that kind of income: privatising Scottish Water (£2bn), Glas Cymru (£1.5bn), and Northern Ireland Water (£1bn) would raise enough money. Offloading the government’s 30% stake in British Energy (£2bn) and the Commonwealth Development Corporation (£2bn) might even add enough money to give the low paid a one-off rebate before the next budget can put things right again.

So, whilst there may be trouble ahead, Labour still has office and as such it can still take control of the situation rather than being buffeted by the ill-winds of a global finacial slow-down (and a massive budgetary cock-up last year). The only question is, do we still have the will to face the music and dance?