May cooler heads prevail during this Influenza A outbreak

by Simon Tay

05:55 AM May 09, 2009

090509-TimeWillTell South Koreans eat boned rib of pork during a campaign for its safety and the consumption of pork which prices have nosedived follwoing reports of swine flu at a local meat market in Seoul, South Korea, Thursday, May 7, 2009.

THE Influenza A (H1N1) virus, often called “swine flu”, is in the air.

I was in San Francisco last week just after California declared an emergency to deal with the outbreak. There was a thermal scanner at the airport but no one asked where I had been. I cleared immigration quickly.

At dinner, I ordered an old-style American pork chop. Only when the dish came to the table did I think twice about it.

On the one hand, the World Health Organization (WHO) says pork will not be a source of infection. On the other, dozens of countries have suspended trade in pigs and pork. I ate my pork chop. It was delicious.

Experts are still uncertain how dangerous the new virus will be. To date, the WHO has reported 1,490 confirmed cases in 23 countries - about half in Mexico.

They include 38 of the 50 states in the United States, 12 European Union countries, Hong Kong and South Korea.

WHO officials have already declared a level 5 situation and believe a full pandemic is likely.

When humans face an unknown danger and demand urgent action, panic usually results.

It is true that past influenza pandemics were lethal, like the Asian flu of 1958 that killed two million people. But the early mortality figures of the current H1N1 outbreak are moderate and the virus responds to existing drugs.

We should not be complacent, but panic too is contagious and dangerous. Witness 2003’s Sars outbreak. Cities became ghost towns, hotels were empty and economies suffered. Today, when the global economy is already in crisis, a repeat of that situation is the last thing we need.

Silliness and misinformation spread. US Vice-President Joe Biden remarked he would avoid all future air travel and then had to recant under pressure. Indonesia’s Health Minister Siti Fadilah Supari is reported to believe, without any medical basis, that H1N1 may be more compatible with people of Spanish origin than Indonesians.

Tough action is already being taken by some governments.

Mexico shut down for five days, taking advantage of a holiday spell to try to break the circle of contagion. Hong Kong responded to its first case by sealing off Metropark Hotel where the flu victim stayed, locking in some 300 guests and staff for seven days.

China quarantined some 70 visitors from Mexico, even though they did not show symptoms. It also announced tighter visa measures for all US visitors.

Tough measures indeed. But what seems tough to one man can be interpreted as draconian, misguided and unfair by another. Mexico for example, has complained about China’s actions and Singapore’s new visa requirements. Pig farmers in Egypt protested when their animals were culled.

Stay cool, keep calm

We have to accept that only so much can be done to isolate the flu and police borders. Even if pigs can’t fly, the swine flu can in our globalised world.

This is especially if the flu spreads through the United States, a major business and travel hub. Isolation is not a long-term option. But countries can and should do more to prepare. After experiences with Sars and avian flu, Asian states are better prepared than most.

In each country, hospitals will need to deal with quarantined people and confirmed cases. For confirmed cases, officials have to be ready to track down the transmission trail, as they did during Sars. Ramping up public hygiene, as seen in the reviving of the Singapore’s OK campaign, is another plus.

Regional efforts can also help. Asean health officials have already teleconferenced to exchange information and coordinate their efforts.

An Asean stockpile of anti-viral drugs, currently stored in Singapore, is being earmarked by its health ministers and their counterparts from China, Japan and South Korea.

If the problem spreads through the US and North America, perhaps the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) process will need to respond, as it did during Sars.

Sars’ scars

But even if Sars prepared Asia to cope better, it has also left scars.

Then, some countries were judged as acting too slowly or ineffectively. In Hong Kong, Sars was one more nail in the political coffin for then Chief Executive Tung Chee Hwa.

Governments will now want to show more vigilance, and some of this will border on jumpiness.

The other issue was the panic that led to the needless shutdown of society and economic catastrophe. Watchful but calm heads, rational decisions and solid preparation must instead be our response.

In the coming weeks, I must travel from New York to Cambodia, Japan, Singapore, Geneva, and maybe Manila and Bangkok. If I change my plans, it will not be out of fear of H1N1, but more to avoid the inconveniences that have resulted from the countermeasures.

As I go along, I plan to eat a special pork dish in each place, like tonkatsu in Japan and bak kut teh in Singapore. And I will try to remember not to sneeze in front of any immigration officer.


The writer is chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs and the 2009 Schwartz Fellow at the Asia Society in New York. He was chairman of the National Environment Agency during the Sars crisis.

From TODAY, World – Weekend, 09/10-May-2009

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