They tell us the swine flu outbreak in Mexico city is developing into a pandemic and even the WHO warns us that all of humanity is under threat. The threat awareness level has been put up from 5 to 6, alerting governments, health ministries and the pharmaceutical industry to be ready for the worst case scenario. Norwegian health authorities prepare themselves for more than 1 million people falling ill. People run to the pharmacies to buy face masks and flu medicines. It all sounds like a high budget Hollywood movie coming true.
I have no doubts that the virus is aggressive and obviously very contagious, and I feel deeply sorry for those who have actually been infected and even died these last weeks. But if we look at the numbers presented so far, it seems that there are in fact not that many people who have actually caught the virus: one confirmed case in one country, four in another etc, and all cases have been with mild symptoms. Except in Mexico city, were it all started. Like in the case of the bird flu, it started among poor people in close contact with animals, in this case pigs. Mexico city is the world's largest city in terms of population; it is crowded, and a great portion of the huge population lives in poverty. Health care services are far from universally good, and there are reports that early cases were actually rejected by health workers.
It seems that there are at least two lessons to be learned from what has happened so far. First of all, in our interconnected global village with its news hungry media and money hungry pharmaceutical industry, fear seems to spread a lot faster than any virus. If there is a pandemic, it is called 'fear'. Second, aggressive viruses are not a threat to wealthy countries with infrastructures, hygiene education and well-functioning health care systems. They are a threat to poor countries that lack such systems. Aggressive viruses are a health problem that interlinks with the poverty problem more than anything. It is a good thing that the WHO realizes that and has decided to do something about it. Hopefully governments, ministries etc all over the rich world also realize that none of the big modern day crises can be solved independently of the key problem underlying them all, which is poverty.
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