Sunday, August 09, 2009

H1N1 - Another Take

So much has happened since my last post on the H1N1 - A influenza outbreak almost 2 months ago. It seems now that the worst fears have been confirmed - as far as these statements go:

  • "The virus, thought to have originated in Mexico, has circumvented the globe in less than 3 months".
  • The Director General of Health was quoted today that "the spread of the H1N1 flu can no longer be contained."
  • "If no intervention steps are taken, it is projected that at least 20% of our population will be affected." That's 4 million people.
If we were to go back to the origins of the initial outbreak, most reliable sources agree that it COULD have began in Mexico and it MAY have originated in pigs. That's not very re-assuring. What's confirmed though now, is that it's a wholly human disease. Yet, there are people who go on condemning the pigs as the biggest culprits.

The second crucial point is - cleanliness, or rather a lack of it. If the pigs had been kept in a reasonably clean environment, and proper hygiene practiced by all those who reared or came into contact with them, chances are that the genetic material that transmits the virus could have been contained.

Third, there've been reports about the richer countries stockpiling vaccines for themselves at the expense of the poorer ones. Evidence of how greed and power play decides who gets to live and who doesn't?

Fourth, we in Malaysia at least had a reasonable window period before the full fury of the virus hit us. Yet, we have been caught with our pants down. We've been disorganised, misinformed and disinformed, and either over or under reacting and doing flip flops every time new information comes in.

When news first broke out about this new flu strain, I remember watching a TV report on the appalling environment of pigs and their breeders in Egypt where hundreds of animals were slaughtered in the aftermath of the outbreak. The whole place was filthy. Yet, there had been a supply and demand situation in that very place. Who authorised that? And why was there little supervision and enforcement? Why were the conditions so terrible in the first place?

I can only guess a few answers: The people who reared them seemed to be the poor, and the pigs their only source of income. Assuming that is correct, one can further deduce that they were too poor to afford better hygienic conditions. Furthermore, Egypt is a largely Islamic nation and pigs are labeled as "unclean" according to Islam. Was it more convenient for the government then to "forget" about these people and the deplorable environment they lived in?

Ironically, there are striking similarities in Mexico too, where the virus first appeared. The same conditions. The same segment of the population that depended on the pigs for their livelihood - the poor. But, Mexico is a not an Islamic country and pigs are therefore not considered "unclean" - so why were the conditions allowed to fester? Again, the finger points to those in charge.

Now, let's come home. From what I gather, because it was a new virulent strain, the virus quickly mutated and like spread like wildfire, first from animal to animal and then to humans. Even then, it was in June that we first heard about the possible outbreak. We had at least two months advance notice. If so, why have there been so many deaths already? Did we take enough precautions? Or were we lacking in our actions? Could we not have prepared better in advance? These questions can probably only be explained with the benefit of hindsight.

Depending on whom you speak to, it seems we are either well informed or with little idea at all to the dangers posed by this virus. To her eternal credit, my better half has been sounding my son to be as clean as possible at all times, something his 8 year old mind can't really comprehend. Yet, he has obeyed his mother to a great degree.

A check around the neighbourhood showed that most residents have been keeping their premises and the shared facilities reasonably clean. Yet last week, one of the cleaners complained that some residents had been dumping their messy general kitchen waste just about everywhere. Why they resort to such conduct when there are three huge dumpsters parked just yards away is beyond me.

Next would be our schools. There has been at least one school in B.M. that was shut for a week since the outbreak began. So far my son's school has been spared. I wonder for how long. I wonder how safe the conditions are there. I feel for those in the "front-line" - the teachers, who bear the brunt of the burden of keeping students in their care safe. The bas-sekolah and van drivers who transport students to and fro. If they fall ill, who is to fetch the children and how? What about the canteen operator? How would closing down the school affect his pockets? Has the canteen been checked thoroughly? The toilets?

I'm lucky that I work as a "lone ranger". I don't deal directly with the public. So I think I'm quite safe. But what about those whose work involves the public routinely? They are damned if they do and damned if they don't! At least one doctor has already been diagnosed for the virus. What about the nurses? Bank clerks - like one relative who's 6 months into her pregnancy? Police officers, bus drivers, port operators, airlines employees, toll booth clerks, supermarket workers, security personnel etc. etc.? What about the many "pasar malams" that dot our towns? Almost everyone is a potential victim. Are we aware of that?

Another thought comes to mind. Could it be that this H1N1 Influenza has come as another wake up call for all of us? In fact, since the beginning of the new millennium, we've been probably "woken up" rudely more times than we care to remember.

Maybe, we have been all too comfortable in our relatively safe havens in Malaysia. Maybe we have for the most part, just sat and watched all those horror illnesses that seemed to plague other "less developed" countries on our many Astro channels. Maybe we have become used to NOT being affected by such life and death situations. Maybe we have been blessed for far too long. Maybe we have taken all this for granted, especially when in many parts of the world, ordinary people have had to constantly battle just to survive . Maybe we have become complacent professionally whenever we've been entrusted with the responsibilities that come with our "pangkats". Maybe we "deserve it" some would say.

Then again, some of us may be actually trying very hard to battle this virus however best we can. Some of us though may have paid little attention to it, as long as we got by. Some of us may even personally know persons directly affected by the ongoing tragedy.

Looking at the state of the country today, if it's indeed a wake up call, maybe we should all take a deep breath, take some time out, reflect a little and put our priorities right. A few examples come to mind:

If we were in charge of health matters, we ought to get cracking - give full information, be more transparent and make available all facilities to the public at every major town minus the burdens and excuses;

If we want to be safe from this and indeed any virus, then we ought to practice clean hygiene, in our homes and out. Maybe we could bring back "civics" and "health science" as learning subjects in our education system;

If we are industry leaders, then we could lead by doing business ethically, putting people before profits, cutting out the cheating, wheeling and dealing and exploitation of the weakest of the weak;

If we are government leaders and political champions, maybe we could pull up our socks, stop unnecessary politicking and start governing by enacting and enforcing existing and new legislation that could help stem the sheer lack of cleanliness and related issues that plague the country. Instead of marginalizing, we could give grants, loans and other forms of financial assistance to those who can't afford so as to raise the prevailing conditions;

If we are able to speak, then maybe we could voice out our concerns and educate those around us who may be ignorant of such news;

If we can write, maybe we could create awareness of such issues to people on our mailing lists, starting an awareness campaign on the social networking sites, or write to the editors of our newspapers by giving input on whatever that's going on around us.

There are many things indeed that we could do. They all point to one thing: ATTITUDE. Do we want to be pro-active or not? Or we contented, keeping the status quo, merely existing but not "alive" until we get another wake up call - somewhere down the line.

I believe if we get our attitude right, all other things will follow. In the end, we will stand either vindicated or condemned based on our attitude - toward ourselves, others around us, the environment that surrounds us, the faith we profess, the country that we live in, the world that we all belong to.

For updates on the H1N1 - A - flu, these are good sites for information:

Check out this BBC report on the "Nature of Pandemics" and see what history tells us of pandemics.

And not forgetting our newspapers, MSM or otherwise of course!