Many believe that the swine flu is over but that’s not true. The known version of the H1N1 virus is not the threat anymore, but viruses mutate and create new and deadlier versions. Avian flu, for example, mutated to become a killer. Today, everyone is asking only question: what’s next? Typically, influenzas are known to spread every 50 to 60 years and kill thousands of people when they become pandemic — the 1957 flu wiped out two million lives. Therefore, unless we are prepared, pandemic influenza would be unstoppable.
Complacency can kill. India should use the current threat as an opportunity to prepare a blueprint on how to tackle an epidemic or a pandemic since our resources are limited. We must learn from Mexico: despite having a poor health surveillance system and income levels which match ours, it managed to tackle the crisis admirably.
First, the Mexican government was transparent about the crisis. It announced the outbreak even though it was likely to hit its tourism sector. This allowed other countries to take preventive measures like screening and quarantining of air passengers. Compare this with Indonesia in 2007 — the country had refused to share strains of the avian flu virus to develop a vaccine commercially.
Mexican President Felipe Calderon declared an emergency — something very few governments would be inclined to do fearing a backlash from the world community. There was no talk of mass immunisation though — a good idea because viruses mutate very quickly and make vaccines obsolete.
Swine flu spreads though contact — even indirect contact. So, the Mexican government closed down schools and offices and public events were cancelled. All this was done quickly; the response was better than what many affluent countries would have managed. Remember how the US fumbled in its response to Hurricane Katrina.
In short, good governance played a key role in controlling the situation in Mexico, a poor, crime-ridden, fragile economy. The key elements were understanding the nature of the virus and its spread and acting precisely on this, communicating with citizens and being transparent about the numbers of affected people.
Some experts warn of a pandemic in the foreseeable future. Whether or not India agrees with that is another question but our level of preparedness has to be at least as good as Mexico’s. On the one hand, we could draw out detailed emergency plans; on the other, we will have to improve the response structure of the government. Denying and hiding the bad news from citizens won’t help. Transparency is the first and critical step if we want to save lives.
Bharati Chaturvedi is Director, Chintan Environmental Research and Action Group.