Time to panic? Quite possibly

Scared about swine flu yet? If not, we have more headlines. Like "Government not ready."

Oh sorry, did you miss that one? Too busy looking at that fetching statue of a Mexican lass wearing a mask ... and nothing else. Not sure how that got in the paper. But amid the "we're all gonna die" coverage there is one good reason to think we're all gonna die. Two, actually. But neither is really about swine flu.

As Ottawa doctor and commentator Barry Dworkin observed, to me and his radio audience, coverage of this disease is out of all proportion to its impact. How many new cases of colon cancer were diagnosed last week, he asked me, and how much press did they get? As for Third World havoc, what about malaria or trichinosis? They just don't get much ink because Hollywood celebrities and western journalists tend not to get them.

I don't want to spoil all the fun here. I sympathize with the impulse to panic. Killer epidemics are among my favourite fears, and I realize everyone's ready for a reprise of the dreaded Spanish flu of 1918.

Well, when I say "ready" I mean "not ready." So if you really want to panic I highly recommend a savoury blend of two stories from the front page of Tuesday's Citizen. The lead story had a splendidly terrifying photo of a Mexican in cowl and mask looking uncannily like the man on horse number one. But the text assured us that "Ottawa chief medical officer of health, Dr. Isra Levy, said Monday that the city -- indeed, the country -- is as ready as it could be to face a pandemic. He said 50 million doses of antiviral drugs had been stockpiled, more than enough for every Canadian. The drugs are the first line of defence. Ottawa, he said, would be well protected."

Ordinarily I would have filed this under the Mandy Rice-Davies rule, named for the woman who dismissed an official's denial during Britain's Profumo scandal with the immortal "Well, he would, wouldn't he?"

It is a regrettable feature of modern spin control that when public figures say precisely what you expect them to, regardless of the facts, their words tell you nothing. But look across the page.

Lurking there was a story that "As area hospitals respond to the heightened alert over swine flu, emergency planners are grappling with whether they will have enough nurses and doctors to treat a sudden surge in patients if the deadly outbreak in Mexico triggers a pandemic here. 'It's the million-dollar question because hospitals are at the edge in terms of their capacity already,' said Thomas Hayes, who chairs a committee of emergency planners from area hospitals, nursing homes and other health-care providers."

That bit about hospitals at the edge of their capacity is not what they would say regardless, and tells you everything you really need to know. Our health-care system, in good times, with infectious diseases under control, a healthy, relatively young population and a long period of prosperity, has been brought to its knees by central planning.

No amount of Mandy Rice-Davies style declarations of allegiance to socialized medicine until the last drop of someone else's blood can change this fact.

Nor can a bunch of sanctimonious rhetoric about collective rights from Michael Ignatieff's latest tome change the reality that in health care, as in life generally, it is impossible to know exactly what is going to happen next so you must try to be ready for the unexpected.

Individuals should exercise, eat right and drink plenty of water to give their bodies a fighting chance if they do get sick. And medical systems need to be flexible, responsive, decentralized and operating well below capacity so they can absorb the ferocious blows of a real epidemic without collapsing.

Now look in the mirror. Do you take good care of yourself? You don't have to tell the rest of us but you know the answer.

Now look in the paper. Have politicians taken good care of our health-care system, or only said what you know they would say anyway to protect the well-being of their political careers? Once again you know the answer.

I said at the outset there are two good reasons for thinking we're all gonna die. One is everybody dies, and the goal of keeping fit, ducking when you hear loud noises and seeking appropriate medical care is simply to postpone the event as long as is reasonably possible. The other is that our health-care system is stretched to the breaking point without anything major having gone wrong.

The swine flu is unlikely to be that thing though you never do know. Sooner or later something really bad will happen, and smooth official assurances that everything is under control will be the predictable, useless accompaniment to man-made catastrophe.

There. Now you can panic.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson