Australian Lefty on Politics, Governance, Science and Info Management

Swine flu? Chickens coming home to roost!

Posted by Dave Bath on 2009-05-29

Whether or not I’m correct in thinking that the "dem" should be taken out of "Swine Flu Pandemic", the current situation does raise a few questions about aerosol-spread acute illnesses, business management, and the near-criminal negligence of the Victorian Government transport policy.

We are closing schools, which are generally well ventilated – but what do we do about trains and trams, dangerously overcrowded (many lines are packed well above mechanical safety limits), with no ventilation?

Given we cannot fix our rundown transport system overnight, or even before the next outbreak of something worth worrying about, a rapid change to workplace practices (both government and private enterprise) is the only thing that can help in the short and medium terms, and more importantly, these changes would bring other substantial benefits to society.

It’s also worth contemplating what happens when a really nasty bug makes an appearance, most horrifyingly, if another Ebola variant goes airborne and maintains Ebola’s 50 to 90 percent human mortality rate.

Schools are closed because they can be, even though public transport is much more of a problem.

Because of negligence by successive Victorian governments (and the ALP has been in power long enough to fix things, but has made things much worse), trains and trams (and probably buses – but I don’t use them so cannot say) are dangerously overcrowded, regularly going over the weight limit for safe operation of the train, let alone safety for travellers.

If an airborne disease could talk, it would tell about the wet dreams it has just thinking about Melbourne trains – people packed so tight their pinned arms wouldn’t be able to cover a mouth with a sudden sneeze, or get a tissue out of a pocket to blow a nose.

The overloading is so bad it’s a wonder some poor lady hasn’t got pregnant from being pressed too close to someone with ejaculatio praecox in summer when people wear thin clothing!

Even "Blind Freddy" could see the dangers from the airborne virus outbreaks of something serious estimated by scientists to be expected at least every decade, combined with grossly overcrowded public transport.

Are the politicians that dumb they cannot see the dangers any reasonable person would grasp given the information provided to politicians?

Because of negligence on the part of successive governments, people are packed so tight in peak hour there is no way to cover your mouth if you sneeze because you are pretty much pinned – lucky to have enough room for your ribcage to expand with each breath.  It’s a wonder somebody hasn’t got pregnant by being pressed too closely to another person with ejaculatio praecox.

Impact on economic activity – and mitigation

It’s a shame I cannot find any studies that estimate the economic cost of overcrowded transport, because of transmission of airborne diseases and the consequent loss of economic effort, not necessarily for really nasty bugs, but for your common garden-variety annual cold or flu.  Even if these mild bugs don’t make you quarantined and unable to work for a couple of weeks, even if they don’t keep you home for a couple of days, you are certainly underperforming for a week – and this can even be life-threatening in some industrial environments.

But if many people are forced into quarantine, or ill, for anything more than a few days, it will be businesses that are hit first, and this threatens not merely those who become ill, but all the other employees that might be out of a job if the business folds.

How many businesses would fold, directly or indirectly, if public transport had to be shut down for a couple of weeks?  Unrealistic?  Then why are we shutting schools, why is there discussion of shutting down large sporting events?

So… what is a business to do, individually and collectively?

The most obvious thing is to encourage people to work from home wherever possible.  Even if the employee drives, the risk of the employee-to-employee transmission within the office is significant… so significant that there have been studies showing that businesses are better off telling people with colds to take a sickie or ex gratia paid leave rather than come to work and infect colleagues.

That’s fairly easy, especially for many white collar workers, call centre operators, etc.

The second tactic, and it’s much more difficult but not impossible, is to decrease the crowding in the public transport system by staggering working hours wherever possible.

Even if only "back office" staff in government offices and larger enterprises were allowed to telecommute where possible, and attendance was staggered, everyone would be better off, even those businesses that cannot reorganize because most of their staff have to attend to customers walking in the door.

Obviously, government would need to lead the way, and should provide both guidance and incentives for businesses to do the same.  I’ve even come up with a first-draft slogan for public-interest advertisements:  "Better home working than home sick, better home working than sick in the office".

What sort of incentives can government give businesses?  Extra tax breaks for setting up people at home (a web cam can even allow videoconferencing) and paying for the extra bandwidth the employee uses?  A small but useful bonus for businesses that can demonstrate they have staggered hours?  A rebate for facemasks supplied as an occ-health measure?  Any other ideas?

And what about income support for those who are affected by the economics, without anyone in their household infected by the virus?  If a business shuts for two weeks, an awful lot of their employees will be unable to pay rent.  But, is it fair if any income support is more than the dole, or pensions (whether disability or old-age)?

The REALLY dangerous bugs

The current swine flu is relatively innocuous when compared to other bugs floating around, such as the current epidemic of pertussis (whooping cough) in NSW and Victoria, which has caused the Centre for Disease Control in the US to issue recent travel warnings about Australia.

However, as I mentioned before, the true nightmare is if another Ebola variant goes airborne again and maintains the 50% to 90% mortality rate within a couple of weeks, after a week incubating or having similar signs and syptoms to the common flu.

Ebola Reston was a mutant strain that went airborne, but luckily, while it still killed non-human primates, the mutation also stopped it causing harm to humans.

There is still the possibility that the index case for Ebola Zaire, Nurse Mayinga, got it through the lungs.

The Upside

There are a number of benefits accruing from increased telecommuting and staggered office hours that are completely unrelated to infectious disease control.  Telecommuting is good for the environment, and allows parents to still earn an income when their children are sick, on holiday, or on the dreaded "curriculum days".  The time from the typical hour-each-way commute can instead be directed to family life, or simply to relaxation, decreasing stress (another major economic problem).

Businesses can also get by with smaller offices: if your staff are only in a day or two a week, and the times are staggered, you can probably save 30% on rental, desks, lighting, air-conditioning, etc.

It’s also good for the government budget given the significant funds directed to subsidizing child care.  Telecommuting can decrease demand for places, so prices go down, so it costs the taxpayer less.

The Politics of Action to Date

Our politicians have been shutting schools (and even a McDonalds has closed for a while), calling for kids having exams soon not to socialize lest they get infected and stuff up their marks, and talking of cancelling large sporting events.  They do this not because it is a big step to help control airborne disease, because human-to-human transmission in schools or student parties is much less likely than in crowded transport, crowded lifts, and offices or planes with recycled air.

The politicians are only doing this because it makes them look like they are taking strong measures.

Have the politicians been talking about the most effective means the virus has for human-to-human transmission?  No.  That would mean admitting they have been incompetent at providing services to the public (and/or incompetent at managing outsourced services).

Have the politicians been talking about how to decrease the risk of transmission without locking everybody up at home and shutting down the economy for a month or so?  No.  That would probably demonstrate they haven’t even been thinking seriously about how to manage the impact of a serious airborne disease – even though they should have things well thought through and "shovel ready" since the scares about H5N1 and SARS gave us all fair warning.

My guess is that while it has been useful for politicians to talk up a storm, because the introduction of the disease in Australia cannot be the fault of politicians (although the spread in public transport will be), and because their actions so far make them look moderately decisive (to the untrained eye), if the disease does spread, they’ll be very quick to talk down the disease as "not significantly fatal", "not much worse in it’s effects than normal flu, and we probably over-reacted.

If the disease spreads in Australia, and the same tough measures (closures, quarantined families – with poor co-ordination of food deliveries) are kept up, then the governments will have to shut down public transport and many other businesses.  They won’t want to do that because of the impact on consumer spending, tax revenues, and the economy as a whole.  They won’t want to do that because the liability of politicians, mismanaging our public transport in the same way that a shop leaving floors dangerously slippery for customers is liable, will become obvious.

You also cannot expect opposition parties to take governments to task – because our governments and major opposition parties are all right-wing and have no real interest in either long term risk management or proper provision of public services requiring long term planning.  Both of these required actions take longer than an electoral cycle, and much longer than a news cycle.

I’d love to see the AS4360 (Australian Risk Management Standard) paperwork our governments have regarding airborne infections (among other things – especially climate change!), showing what they see as the risks, the relative impacts of various scenarios, probabilities of occurrences, and mitigating strategies.

I won’t see the AS4360 paperwork, because I don’t think our politicians have bothered.  Some hard-working technocrats might have done some work, but the questions raised by the technocrats will cause the politicians to run away, find something more newsworthy, or simply stick their fingers in their ear, singing "La, La, La, Happy Thoughts, Happy Thoughts, La, La, La."

We deserve better.

Think about this when you next get on a train, and, if you are in Melbourne, next time to realise their is no way you can squeeze on the train unless all the passengers on the platform cut their legs off first.

Notes/See Also:

  • "Of Horses and Humans" (2007-09-03) looks at the income support for racing workers when horse flu hit that industry – and the lack of talk about income support as part of the national response to bird flu.
  • If you want a good backgrounder on Ebola, and the Reston incident, Pulitzer-prize-winner Richard Preston’s The Hot Zone is a darn good read, although for someone like me, who studied microbiology and pathology and can read between the lines and understand the suffering involved, it is tough reading.  Apparently Preston’s book scared the sh*t out of Stephen King.  It should be scaring the sh*t out of politicians.
  • There may even be a "Swine Ebola" – there is what looks like a smoking gun for pig-to-human ebola transmission in the Philippines earlier this year, although luckily it was the Reston strain.
  • Oh, and if you go hunting for swine flu in this blog, please understand that this is satire – a metaphor for the criminal Roman Catholic position on AIDS and condoms.


3 Responses to “Swine flu? Chickens coming home to roost!”

  1. 迷你倉 said

    In Hong Kong,a school has to stop the class for 2 weeks because of swine flu !!!

  2. 迷你倉 said

    The World Health Organization has warned that the world is on the verge of an official swine flu pandemic, saying it is working to prepare countries for raising its alarm to the highest level.

    ”We are getting very, very close,” said Keiji Fukuda, WHO assistant director-general, noting that in Australia, there is ”a great deal of activity in Victoria at the community level.”

    Under the WHO’s guidelines, one key criteria for declaring a pandemic is established community spread in a country outside the first region in which the disease was initially reported, in this case, outside the Americas.

    The WHO has left its six-level pandemic alert scale unchanged at phase five, signalling that a pandemic is ”imminent.”

    The UN health agency’s guidelines had initially focused on the geographical criteria to justify a phase change. However, member states have called on the agency to take other elements, such as severity of the disease into account.

    Fukuda played down the role of severity, saying that “by going to phase six, what this would mean is that the spread of the virus continues and activity has become established in at least two regions in the world.

    ”It doesn’t mean that the severity of the situation has increased,” he said.

    Australia’s swine flu outbreak hit sports events yesterday as a national swimming competition was axed and rugby league’s first case put fixtures in doubt.

    But when asked if the situation in Australia, where 1,211 cases of infections have been recorded, warranted a phase change, Fukuda would only say that the world is ”getting very, very close” to a pandemic.

  3. 迷你倉 said

    Thanks for the information.

    By 迷你倉

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