Streetwise Professor

April 27, 2009

An Unserious Response to a Potentially Serious Problem

Filed under: Economics,Politics — The Professor @ 8:31 pm

Russia, renowned for its public health prowess, is taking aggressive measures against swine flu:

All passengers arriving in Russia from the United States or Mexico will have their temperatures tested to make sure that they are not carrying a deadly strain of swine flu, Gennady Onishchenko, head of the Federal Consumer Protection Service, said Sunday.  

“All airline passengers from Mexico and the United States will be passing through a contact-free heat sensor,” he said, Interfax rep

Whew.  Glad there’s a “contact free” test.  When I read the first paragraph, I had a vision of a Russian Nurse Ratched standing at the end of the jetway in Sheremetyevo with a thermometer, and NOT one of those nice little electronic oral ones, if you know what I mean.  

Uhm, I mean a temperature may be a necessary condition for swine flu, but it’s hardly a sufficient condition.  My 15 year old had a fever last week.  Pretty sure it wasn’t the swine flu.  Talk about a test tailor-made for false positives.  In other words, a complete waste of resources with virtually no prospect of any benefit.  Unless the whole idea is to discourage foreign tourists, and to deter Russians from traveling abroad.  

But the government’s vigilance does not stop there:

The outbreak also led to a new round of pork bans, Nikolai Vlasov, a deputy head of Russia’s veterinary health watchdog, said Sunday. Effective immediately, uncooked pork from Mexico, California, Texas and Kansas will be stopped at the border because of confirmed swine flu cases there.  

Uhm, again–one can’t contract swine flu from meat:

Here is the C.D.C.’s response to the pork question: “Swine influenza viruses are not spread by food. You cannot get swine influenza from eating pork or pork products. Eating properly handled and cooked pork products is safe.”

Russia has routinely used health justifications to ban imports of agricultural products that compete with domestic producers.  This just seems another transparently opportunistic attempt to exploit health fears to engage in protectionism.

The swine flu is a potentially serious matter.  Thoughtful measures are called for.  The public measures Russia has announced are, to say the least, not thoughtful.  They betray a mixture of xenophobia and economic opportunism.  And, what’s more, they would be more palatable if Russia took a similarly aggressive tack to its own public health dangers (e.g., various outbreaks of bird flu, and especially problems with virulent TB and AIDS).

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  1. Eating pork products won’t give you Swine Flu, the Russians are politically gaming the crisis. It’s a repiratory disease with live swine involved.

    As transparently stupid and political as the Russian response is ours is worse.

    I’m more than amused, horrified will follow if this disease progresses in a big way, with all of the Homeland Security warnings on air travel from and to Mexico when on foot, by car and on buses nightly/daily thousands cross our southern non-border from Mexico. Few illegals fly into the US.

    The incubation is 5 to 7 days, taking temperatures is uesless because you can be asymptomatic and admitted.

    Comment by penny — April 27, 2009 @ 8:52 pm

  2. I completely agree that screening passengers and banning pork imports are useless.

    However, this rather misses the whole point – its not about xenophobia, but about making an appearance that the government is doing something to reassure the public. Russia is far from alone in these populist measures.

    Short of completely barring the ports of entry – and I think it’s too late to make a difference by now – there is nothing governments can do except try to slow its internal spread, contain excessive mortality and maintain social cohesion.

    Comment by Sublime Oblivion — April 27, 2009 @ 8:54 pm

  3. penny, I think closing the border would have been pointless. As I understand it by the time they realized what was going down it had already become endemic in the US.

    Comment by Sublime Oblivion — April 27, 2009 @ 8:57 pm

  4. DR–

    “Appearances that the government is doing something to reassure the public.” But placebos are not just useless here, they are destructive because (a) they utilize real resources that could be better employed at devising and implementing more effective measures, and (b) they may induce a false sense of security that dissuades people from making behavioral changes that are more effective at slowing the spread of the disease. I don’t see how propagating ignorance is an effective public health strategy.

    Indeed, insofar as maintaining social cohesion is concerned, implementing ineffective measures is particularly destructive. Consider the likely response if the disease does spread. People would likely conclude (a) the government is ineffective and bumbling (and they’d probably be right), or (b) the disease cannot be stopped despite the active vigilance of the authorities (i.e., when a false sense of security is destroyed, a likely reaction is panic and a belief that nothing will make you secure). Either alternative seems particularly corrosive to social cohesion, and to cooperation with sensible government policies, belatedly adopted after public relations stunts fail.

    Insofar as “Russia not being alone in these populist measures” is concerned–agreed, but . . . . Is imitating stupidity/ignorance really something praiseworthy? Like my mother always told me, whenever I said that “Gee mom, all my friends are doing X”: “If all your friends were jumping off a bridge, would you jump too?”

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — April 27, 2009 @ 9:17 pm

  5. Random thought – Russians, Ukrainians, etc sometimes do eat pork raw (salo). So perhaps not as completely pointless as I first thought.

    Comment by Sublime Oblivion — April 28, 2009 @ 2:44 am

  6. […] of new arrivals at its ports of entry in an effort to identify people infected with swine flu. These measures will do little to check the spread of the disease – that would require a full-scale quarantine of […]

    Pingback by Preparing for the Pandemic | Sublime Oblivion — April 28, 2009 @ 5:14 am

  7. I’ve written up my thoughts on the swine flu situation at –

    “Unless you’ve been living under a rock the past few days, you will know the world is facing a possible swine flu pandemic originating from Mexico. As I write this, on the evening of April 27 California time, there are 2,500+ possible cases worldwide and up to 149 deaths in Mexico that can be attributed to the virus. Though this is far from my area of specialty, I’ll contribute what I consider to be the most important things to know about this, namely, just how SERIOUS this may become, advice on how to maximize your chances of survival in points 3 – 5 and speculation about the possible economic and geopolitical fall-out, especially in the US and Russia”….

    Comment by Sublime Oblivion — April 28, 2009 @ 5:15 am

  8. This post and comment thread just proves that there are people out there who will criticize ANYTHING the Russian government does. I was watching CNN last night and they were showing videos from a number of international airports where they were using heat sensor to try to find folks who may be infected. Go tell the dozens of governments around the world that they are idiots too. Trying to find infected people through heat sensors, and the taking of temperatures, may not be fail proof but it is something.

    You guys really feed on the “hate Russia” aspect of any issue.

    Comment by James — April 28, 2009 @ 5:19 am

  9. James, you are only going to find those folks that are at the end of the incubation period and are running a fever, for every one of them discovered there are more that are asymptomatic but sick and not discovered. Sure, it’s something but not enough. And, political Russia deserves to be vilified.

    Comment by penny — April 28, 2009 @ 9:40 am

  10. The reaction around Europe (and I’ll include Ukraine and Russia in that category) seems to vary – significantly – based on whether the country is a post-sovok state or not.

    The non-post-sovok states seems to have stockpiled Tamiflu.

    The post-sovok states, which are heavily bent on giving the appearance of “doing something” without really doing it, have banned imports of live pigs. It is the sovok mentality – don’t deal with a problem, just give the appearance of really “smashing” the problem, “coming down hard” on the problem.

    Here is a little summary:

    April 28 (Reuters) – Governments around Europe acted to stem a possible flu pandemic on Monday as a virus spread from Mexico to North America and Europe. Here is a guide to some of the precautionary steps being taken around Europe:

    AUSTRIA — Has stocks of antiviral drugs sufficient to treat 4 million people (half the population), and has secured production capacity for prophylactic vaccines for the entire population. It has also stockpiled 8 million protective masks.

    BRITAIN — Advises nationals against non-vital travel to Mexico. Has antiviral stockpiles to provide treatment for 50 percent of the population should they become ill.

    BULGARIA — Plans to post information on its website about swine flu and advice for passengers travelling to and from affected countries. Two thermal scanners have been installed at Sofia airport.

    CZECH REPUBLIC — Has stocks of 2 million doses of Tamiflu, enough to treat one fifth of the population.

    DENMARK — A general pandemic plan is in place since bird flu scare. Denmark has stockpiled Tamiflu.

    FRANCE — Advises nationals against non-vital travel to Mexico. Has reinforced checks at airports, especially for people returning from Mexico. France has a stock of more than 30 million antiviral treatments, composed of 24 million doses of Tamiflu and 9 million doses of Relenza.

    GERMANY — Advises nationals against non-vital travel to Mexico.

    GREECE — Has “strategic stocks” of Tamiflu and other antivirus medicine.

    ITALY – Pamphlets are being handed out to passengers at Rome’s international airport although there are no restrictions on travel. Italy has 10 million doses of Zanamivir (Relenza) and 60,000 doses of Tamiflu as well as enough Tamiflu powder to make 30 million doses.

    NORWAY — A “pandemic committee” will be assembled this week. Authorities have stored flu medicine covering one-third of the 4.7 million population.

    RUSSIA — Health ministry recommends Russian citizens avoid trips to Mexico.

    Aircraft personnel arriving from the Americas have been instructed to look out for passengers with flu-like symptoms. Planes, on which cases are suspected, should be taxied to special zones, and passengers and crews examined by medics.

    — Imposed curbs on meat imports from Mexico, a number of U.S. states and the Caribbean.

    SPAIN — Distributing leaflets to passengers arriving from Mexico, advising them to report to a health centre if they suffer symptoms. Spain has a stockpile of 10 million doses of Tamiflu. Flights to Mexico are being equipped with face masks and gloves.

    UKRAINE — Ban on imports of live pigs and pork meat from countries where cases of swine flu have been recorded. This applies to Mexico, the U.S., Canada and New Zealand. All shipments received after April 21 will be subject to the ban.

    Comment by elmer — April 28, 2009 @ 10:22 pm

  11. It gets even worse, and sad to say, this is in Ukraine.

    Air travelers arriving in Ukraine from countries hit by the swine flu virus must exit their plane across mats saturated with disinfectants, according to Health Ministry instructions going into effect on Tuesday. The anti-virus pathways are to be at the exits of aircraft arriving from Mexico and the US, government officials said.

    And even worse yet: ————————————

    Health Minister: Ukraine has cure for swine flu, but no vaccine yet
    Yesterday, 15:11 | Interfax-Ukraine Print E-mail to a friend E-mail to an editorial Kyiv, April 28 (Interfax-Ukraine) – Ukrainian Health Minister Vasyl Kniazevych has stated that Ukraine has a cure for swine ‘flu.

    “I officially state that we have a drug that can treat swine ‘flu, but no vaccine yet,” the minister told the press on Tuesday.

    According to the minister, the medicine is registered in Ukraine, properly tested and has been given recommendations.

    However, the minister did not name the drug.

    “If I name [the drug], it is going to sell out. Some people will want to profit from this,” the minister said.

    He added that the drug had been studied and tested in labs in the United States and Mexico.

    Comment by elmer — April 28, 2009 @ 10:26 pm

  12. Looks like you were wrong again.

    According to a new report: “Jorgen Schlundt, director of WHO’s Department of Food Safety, Zoonoses and Foodborne Diseases, told Reuters it’s possible for influenza viruses to survive the freezing process, and he cautioned against eating meat from sick and dead pigs infected with the swine flu.”

    A ban on pig imports from Mexico and America seems completely justified now. Better to be safe than sorry, and it seems the Russian government agrees.

    James has it pretty much right. You people will find any excuse in the world to criticize anything the Russian government says or does. It gets old.

    Comment by Bob From Canada — May 6, 2009 @ 6:10 pm

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