The Great Recession Flu

Swine flu is so 2009. Like La Roux and v-neck t-shirts.

And yet here we are nearly two years later and the United Kingdom is suffering a swine flu attack worse than anything it previously faced. The number of flu patients in intensive care has risen by 60% in the past week to 738, four times greater than at the pandemic’s peak in 2009. Some hospitals are on ‘black alert,’ canceling non-urgent operations and running short on intensive care beds.

Children are taking the worse of the blows. The incidence for the under-four age group is approaching 200 per 100,000, the epidemic threshold, even before the post-holiday return to school, where flus best incubate.

Since its emergence the novel H1N1 strain which swept the planet mid-2009 has quietly remained the world’s dominant influenza strain, sharing the stage with seasonal H3N2 and influenza B. As we’ve discussed several times here, the sustained global presence would likely permit the virus the opportunity to evolve independently across multiple populations under different social and public health regimens.

As in 1918-1919, one such natural experiment might produce a more virulent strain. In a kind of demic selection, the UK outbreak might very well seed another round of epidemiologically aggressive global swine flu, albeit not necessarily at the level of virulence of the Great Influenza. There’s no way to know at this point. Only time will tell.

Public health experts had warned of the possibility. In the face of what seemed a milder outbreak than first feared–Mexico’s initial case fatality rates broached 1918 levels–the professionals were subsequently marginalized or even ridiculed.

Budgetary allotments followed suit.

  • This past autumn the UK government abandoned its annual vaccination advertising campaign, as a cost-cutting measure. It’s now playing catch-up, promoting a New Year’s vaccination, which, requiring a week before protection kicks in, is likely too late to be effective for most in the coming flu peak.
  • New Zealand meanwhile appears caught between swine flu vaccine batches, presently stocked with little but outdated vaccines from last year before March’s new shipment.
  • Stateside, the swine industry’s recessionary profits have been placed before even the weakest regulation and surveillance for the next killer flu, a topic to which we will return here in the coming weeks.

In this day and age of just-in-time fast-food neoliberal governance, public health is myopically treated as expedient and expendable. Governments reluctantly provide just enough coverage to get us through a bad season, with no long-term strategy beyond opinion management. Then it’s back to the Real (and Very Important and Prudent) practice of bailing out bankers.

Whereas speculators are treated as too big to fail, global health, literally of the people of the world, is dismissed as too small to succeed. A strange and damning alchemy.

With each passing year, now 2011 no exception, the kleptocracy more openly refutes itself, even increasingly so, one thinks, to its most ardent proponents, many of whom may soon be coughing themselves blue in the face.

It would be no small irony if the next round of swine flu originated in neoliberalism’s own birthplace, this earth, this realm, this England. This fortress built by Nature for herself / Against infection and the hand of war.

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One Response to “The Great Recession Flu”

  1. I love the Shakespeare at the end.

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