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APRIL 30, 2009 1:47PM

Swine Flu: Congressional Politics and the Role of the Media

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Current events rarely stray too far from political issues and swine flu is no exception. By taking a detailed look at the following issues over the next several days I hope to draw some lines between politics and health illustrated by the current crisis.
  • What conclusions can we draw about public health care and/or a national health preparedness infrastructure from the state of the swine flu outbreak so far?
  • What conclusions can we draw about congressional political battles over spending on pandemic flu perparations in light of current public health needs?

Today I'll take a look at the second question and expand it to include media coverage of the congressional politics of swine flu. In short, who did what, does it matter, and how is it being covered?

 As the swine flu continues to spread, politicians, news outlets, and bloggers have taken every opportunity to gain political points and assign blame. For those in the business of politics, current events provide a great opportunity to promote their agenda and attack their opponents. The resulting statements range from the bizarre and preposterous to more earnest attempts to identify weaknesses in the current response and examine why those weaknesses exist. Michelle Bachmann (innocently) wonders why flu outbreaks happen when Democrats are in the white house (even though the last flu outbreak in 1976 happened when Gerald Ford was president). And the Times surveys the decline in resources available to public health institutions:

    "The recession has drained hundreds of millions of dollars and thousands of workers from the state and local health departments that are now the front line in the country’s defense against a possible swine flu pandemic. 


    Public health officials said Congress had missed an opportunity by excising nearly $900 million in proposed financing for pandemic flu preparation from this year’s stimulus bill. It was to be the final installment of President George W. Bush’s request for $7 billion in federal spending on vaccines, medical equipment and planning. Congress last allocated money for pandemic planning by state and local governments in 2006 — about $600 million over two years, said Dr. Paul E. Jarris, executive director of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials.

    “The entire system is lining up to decrease resources at the time we need them most,” Dr. Jarris said. “We have to realize that we’re at the starting line. The stress will come if this escalates.”"

The Times concludes that the financial fallout of the recession and a failure to include pandemic prevention funding in the stimulus bill have resulted in a strain on local public health offices.

Why was funding for pandemic prevention removed from the House version of the stimulus bill? This question erupted on Sunday when a blogger at The Nation discovered that Republican Rep. Susan Collins stripped pandemic funding from the stimulus bill because it was not appropriately "stimulative." Several bloggers went to the ridiculous extreme of "blaming" the pandemic on "Pandemic Sue" and other fiscal conservatives who opposed the funding. The situation became even more bizarre when Michelle Malkin, in an effort to get the entire blame off GOP shoulders, approvingly linked to a DailyKos diary that mentioned Democrat Chuck Schumer's opposition to the funding  (in an unfortunate irony, Schumer included the funding in a list of "porky things" in the House version of the bill). It was all downhill from there: Susan Collins is blameless because she only opposed the funding in the stimulus bill, not funding in general. The funding made it into the omnibus spending bill a month later so everything is fine. But Susan Collins voted against cloture on that bill, effectively denying funding on this issue in any form.

And yet this wasn't the end of the finger-pointing. Michelle Malkin and other conservative bloggers blame Obama for failing to fill key health-related cabinet positions - even though GOP governers had been holding up the confirmation of Kathleen Sebelius for head of Health and Human Services (she was confirmed yesterday).

As the issue petered out on the blogs when it became apparent that both Democrats and Republicans deserved some of the blame, the cable news networks picked up where the blogs left off. As a result we get the gem of a video at the beginning of this post: Michael Steele arguing that the GOP deserves no blame for removing the pandemic funding from the stimulus bill because no one saw the pandemic coming. I suppose that the insanity of this position was lost on him in a level of blindness not seen since Bobby Jindal ridiculed volcano eruption prediction funding despite the fact that his state experienced extreme human suffering due to a severe failure to adequately plan for one of the worst natural disasters in recent American history.

This is the essence of the bickering over pandemic blame so far. What can we learn from this fighting? In our current political climate, one man's pork is another man's vital funding. Unfortunately the "government is always bad" philosophy has become so normalized that any funding is automatically suspect. Mix in the extreme politicization of public health left over from the Bush years and you end up with a tempest in a teacup.

Of course the blogosphere and cable news networks are highly susceptible to getting drowned in this kind of minutiae and in fact are extremely conducive to it since both are on a 24-hour cycle where updating frequency is often the most important measure of quality. Who said what, who voted for what, and what do they really believe become the issues of the day while fundamental questions go unanswered. So while it is fun to see congressional hypocrisy at work and even more fun to "stick it" to the other side, what gets left out in the cloud of political noise? I saw lots of coverage of poor "Pandemic Sue," but very little consideration of a much more important issue: why is it that in today's highly interconnected world we do not agree as a nation that public health preparedness spending is a necessary and laudable public good?

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Wouldn't it be nice if they just said, "We screwed up?"
Excellent post! Your comments on the 24 hour news cycle are spot on. Even though it is not funny, my husband and I just look at each other and laugh over media coverage of the swine flu pandemic in Florida. Last night there was a leadin to the effect of questioning how was it possible that the first case of swine flu had yet to surface in Florida. (As if that is a bad thing?)

Another comment was that there "might" be a case in Orlando, but no one can be sure if there was if it might be prudent to close down Disney World. (What?!)

The state of Florida will struggle financially under this media fueled fear mongering over the swine flu if tourism is negatively impacted this summer. Punching Florida in the gut with yet more potential economic downturn might sell news but in the long run will be extremely detrimental to this state's economy. We are already struggling to fix the housing sector and replenish the state's coffers with income from same. The cruise industry will be hugely negatively impacted if cruises are cancelled as a precautionary measure.

Having not the first incidence of swine flu in the state of Florida should be a good thing. Instead this "non-news" is spun and twisted to further fear of travel as well as partisan hatred of the current administration.

If there was even one case of swine flu to report here, perhaps I would feel differently. Surely reporting on a pandemic would be necessary. Currently, the amount of media attention is disproportional to the numbers of cases in the population.

The media is behaving irresponsibly in its efforts to keep up excitement and ratings for its 24 hour news cycle. In a nutshell, there is not enough tragedy and fear inducing events to excite and tittilate the masses on a daily basis so the media manufactures something to fill the void. It is a shameful waste of our time and energy to be impacted by their nonsense...