The Five Worst Government Responses to Swine Flu

From Cuba to Japan, countries are busy bungling their reactions to the outbreak.

By Melissa Lafsky|Thursday, April 30, 2009

A possible pandemic spreads across the globe. Media coverage blasts through the airwaves, while the Internet swarms with panic and misinformation. People look to their governments to provide solutions and restore order. So what do those governments do? Well, some are handling it ably, and the World Health Organization has sprung into effective action. Others, well, their actions range from merely pointless to ludicrously tragic. Here are the five worst government actions in response to the swine flu outbreak.

5. Banning Cheek Kissing
As of this week, no swine flu cases have been reported in Lebanon. But that didn't stop the country's Health Minister, Mohammad Khalifeh, from announcing on Tuesday, April 28, that all Lebanese people should eschew the national custom of kissing on the cheek as a greeting. "If you visit someone, don't exchange kisses... Let's stop the social kissing habit," Khalifeh said in a press conference. Sure, it's a move on the right track—the virus, which lives in liquid particles like saliva, can be spread by any person-to-person contact, including kissing. But in the bigger picture, putting the kibosh on cheek smooching won’t do a thing when you’re on a bus or train full of coughing, sneezing masses of infection.

4. Shutting Mexican Citizens Out
The outbreak began in Mexico City, and Mexico remains the only country that has seen a significant number of deaths. So, by a certain thread of reasoning, simply locking out anyone from Mexico should keep the virus out. But in reality, it doesn't quite work that way: The virus has already spread enough that border restrictions will do little good, say experts, and the World Health Organization's Emergency Committee announced earlier this week that it did not recommend closing borders or restricting travel, which would deliver a monster blow to an already floundering global economy.

Nevertheless, Cuba rushed to suspend all flights to and from Mexico for at least 48 hours. Argentina soon followed with its own ban on direct flights from the epidemic's epicenter, and ordered 60,000 visitors who had recently arrived from Canada, Mexico, and the U.S. to contact the Health Ministry. Japan, which to date has no reported cases of swine flu, has ceased issuing visas to Mexican nationals, and France is encouraging the entire E.U. to ban flights to Mexico.

3. Turning the Name Into a Religious Debate
Granted, the name "swine flu" is inherently misleading, since the disease has origins among birds and humans as well as pigs. But that didn't stop one Israeli official from inferring religious significance from the title. Earlier this week, Israel's deputy health minister, Yakov Litzman, a member of an ultra-Orthodox party, declared that "swine flu" should not be used because it contains the name of an animal banned by Judaism. His proposed alternative? "Mexican flu."

Needless to say, this suggestion didn't go over too well with the Mexican ambassador to Israel, or the Israeli envoy to Mexico, both of whom lodged protests with the foreign ministry over the name change. Meanwhile, The New York Times reports that Litzman’s semantic argument hasn’t gained popularity in the rest of the world, with the exception of Thailand.

2. Slaughtering Every Pig in Your Country
Second place goes to Egypt, whose government decided that since the virus originated from pigs, the best way to keep it out is to kill every pig in your borders. So that's what they did. This week, Health Ministry workers began slaughtering the roughly 300,000 pigs unfortunate enough to reside there—a number that would have been far higher were Egypt not a predominantly Muslim country.

Unfortunately for the government—and the pigs, and their farmers, and the Egyptian citizens who will gain nothing from this pointless massacre—killing pigs has absolutely no effect on the transmission of the virus. "The crisis today is in transmission from human to human. It has nothing to do with pigs," U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization Chief Veterinary Officer Joseph Domenech told the AP. Though it's certainly a good week to buy pork chops in Cairo.

1. Wait, an Epidemic Started Here? Should We Do Something?
It's been over two weeks since the first victim died in Mexico, and the Mexican government's initial response hovers just above chaotic. For one, the authorities still haven’t provided the families of the dead—i.e., those most likely to have been exposed to the virus—with medicine. Nor has the government pinpointed where the outbreak began, or how it spread. And while officials are urging anyone who feels sick to go to hospitals, the AP reports that sick individuals are complaining that ambulance workers refuse to pick them up.

The Mexican health agency's utter lack of organization or mobilization—despite a more than $5 billion annual budget—is understandably causing a crisis of faith among Mexican citizens, according to the AP:

"'Nobody believes the government anymore,' said Edgar Rocha, a 28-year-old office messenger. He said the lack of information is sowing distrust: 'You haven't seen a single interview with the sick!'"

For his part, Mexican health secretary Jose Angel Cordova argued that the outbreak is unlike any in the past, and that personnel shortages kept his agency from distributing the medicine faster. Still, his responses to questions from the press are less than comforting:

"Cordova said he couldn't provide information on the victims for reasons of confidentiality, but promised to eventually release a statistical breakdown. He said he couldn't provide that data now 'because it's being processed.' Asked whether he could at least say how many of the 20 confirmed victims were men and how many were women, he said: 'I don't have that information.'"

At least the country’s citizens are maintaining their sense of humor.

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