Wednesday, November 18, 2009


rall mug America’s scandalously lame (non-)response to the swine flu pandemic isn’t a big deal. Not compared to, say, the melting of the polar ice cap. It isn’t torture. Or war. It pales next to giving hundreds of billions of dollars to wealthy bankers and nothing to homeowners facing foreclosure. But it sure is interesting.

First the Obama administration committed the classic mistake of governance: they overpromised and underdelivered, failing to ensure Americans had enough H1N1 vaccine. Summertime estimates of 120 million doses fell to 40 million and then 28 million. In fairness to Obama administration officials, vaccine production is an inherently unpredictable business; the swine flu antigen simply grew slower than that of other flus.

But here’s what’s weird: Even after the feds learned there wouldn’t be enough vaccine to go around, they urged everyone to demand it from their doctors. Lines reminiscent of the Soviet Union in the 1970s sprang up outside clinics.

At many locations, hundreds of people were turned away. Hint to Secretary Sebelius: they won’t go back.

More telling was the White House’s inability to see the crisis coming coupled with its knee-jerk reliance on free markets. With the air out of the capitalist balloon since September 2008, why on earth would Obama & Co. trust private pharmaceutical corporations to do the job? A pandemic calls for a sweeping response such as temporary or permanent nationalization of drug companies.

Moreover, the decision to outsource most of the production overseas baffles the mind. Four out of five of the vaccine makers hired by the U.S. government were in other countries. CSL Ltd., one of the four and based in Australia, met its own country’s needs first.

Now there’s an idea.

Also indicative of America’s “can’t do” spirit in the Age of Obama is the government’s unwillingness to impose commonsense on the cheapest of the cheap: employers.

A hundred years after the rise of unionism, nearly 40 percent of private-sector workers get no paid sick days. Add that to employees at other firms who have already used up their meager allotment, and those who are afraid to take a day off lest they get targeted for layoffs, and you’ve got trouble: tens of millions of people mixing it up at work, many of them carrying a highly contagious, potentially lethal virus.

Nina G. Stillman, a lawyer with a New York law firm that advises companies on sick-leave policy, told The New York Times: “Employers who do not offer sick days are not prepared to offer them now, and they recognize that this may result in not achieving what they say they would like, which is that people who are sick stay home.”

Translation: employers don’t give a damn about health of the country. Well, maybe a damn. Not a nickel.

One of the nation’s largest employers actually threatens to fire workers who get sick. Reports the Times: “At Wal-Mart, when employees miss one or more days because of illness or other reasons, they generally get a demerit point. Once employees obtain four points over a six-month period, they begin receiving warnings that can lead to dismissal.”

Note to firing squads of the future: see above paragraph.

A country with a strong, well-run government would order employers to give all employees with flu-like symptoms paid time off from work. But Barack Obama, in thrall to and in the pockets of big business, hasn’t lifted a finger to spare us from misery — and deaths  — that are totally unnecessary.

One of the most reliable indicators of a country’s political and social viability is its ability to respond to an emergency. Are leaders able to react quickly and forcefully, like JFK during the Cuban missile crisis? Or do they get caught flat-footed? Is the government dysfunctional, with each branch waiting for some other agency to act?

The United States has faced four major challenges in this new century: the stolen election of 2000, 9/11, Katrina, and the Depression that began a little over one year ago. Each crisis metastasized within a different medium (politics, military, domestic governance, economy), each essential to maintaining a successful nation-state. Tellingly, the U.S. failed each test.

Will the H1N1 pandemic rises to those events’ status as signal catastrophes? I don’t know. But it highlights what many of us have suspected for years: the U.S. has entered an irreversible decline.

Ted Rall is the author, with Pablo G. Callejo, of the upcoming graphic memoir The Year of Loving Dangerously. He is also the author of the 2002 graphic travelogue To Afghanistan and Back.

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