The fragile thread of life: H1N1 and other perils

August 9, 2009

The H1N1 virus begins to claim lives in India. The public health crisis blots out all other concerns, at least on television news channels.


If an illustration were needed that public health crises create tremendous anxiety and insecurity, the coverage on Indian television of the spread of the H1N1 (swine flu) virus would be it! As India’s first H1N1 epidemic casualties were recorded, panic spread—in the newsrooms, if not in neighbourhoods. Schools closed. Door to door searches have begun. Surgical masks are flying off shelves. And in an interesting precedent for federal India, one state has issued an advisory against travel to another. As with the plague in the late 1990s, and avian flu and chikungunya more recently, the combination of a highly infectious disease and a public health system that strains to provide for millions are frightening in a very immediate way.

The epidemic draws our attention back to simple things that we keep forgetting:

1.The failure everywhere to invest in universally accessible health care.
2. The inequitable trade and intellectual property regimes that make life-saving drugs unaffordable and inaccessible to most around the world.
3. If people are not healthy, everything that a state secures is lost.

All the sophisticated theories and doctrines we write about security do not alter the Malthusian-Hobbesian realities of those living in societies with a high prevalence of HIV and AIDS; of those living in places where a failure to assure sanitation and clean drinking water means thousands still die of diarrhoea; of the embarrassing number of mothers who still die in childbirth; of the schoolchildren who are proving most susceptible to this new virus.

At times like this, the attention the policy-making world pays to traditional issues really does seem like tilting at windmills.

Some perspectives on H1N1 and public health in India follow but interestingly, far fewer op-eds and feature articles than the panic on television news would suggest:

H1N1 and the have-nots, Hindustan Times editorial, August 5, 2009.
Kounteya Sinha, Explosion of secondary H1N1 infection in India, Times of India, August 9, 2009.
and by me: Pulse Readings: Public health and security, Infochange India, July 2009.

Why aren’t India’s leading columnists and social scientists not taking a greater interest in this issue? That important question leads to another much bigger one: who sets the discursive agenda in public affairs? Probably not those who cannot access Tamiflu.

I will continue to add links to resources that use this crisis for broader reflections on policy and security.
Ila Patnaik, Find the side effects, Indian Express, August 10, 2009.
Manish Kakkar and K. Srinath Reddy, Pinning and tackling swine flu, Indian Express, August 12, 2009.
Meeting a pandemic challenge, Hindu, August 12, 2009.

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