If that headline got your attention, then you know how helpful some media can be when a crises arises.
It was a surreal experience last month when I awoke to 10 continuous minutes on the morning national newscast about the swine-flu epidemic about to hit the country. This must be a major event, I thought, since there was time for little else. Until this point, my news listening experienced ranged from the Dziekanski enquiry all the way to... the Dziekanski inquiry.
An hour of interviews with pandemic experts followed the newscast. They talked about what effect the virus could have on the population. One doctor did allow, as a caveat, that so far no one in Canada had died and only a handful of people (out of 33 million) had actually showed any symptoms – and they were mild.
Two days later, I was knee-deep in our annual trade show, which showcases products and education police require to meet the clear and present dangers they face daily. I awoke the morning after it ended to the same voice of doom, now saying there were plans to shut down schools and turn gymnasiums into temporary morgues. Things must have been talked out a little though, because now they managed to squeeze in time to once again talk about... the Dziekanski enquiry.
I was told the next morning that the pork industry is suffering because people are worried about eating pigs because of the swine flu. The TV newscaster promises to henceforth refer to it as the “H1N1” flu. Another radio station decides the term “swine-flu” is okay, while a radio show coins the term “Pandemic Incident Germ Spreading” flu – or “PIGS flu” for short.
In a vain attempt to find other news, I scan the radio dial for non-porcine news. CBC appears to have something – on Tasers, of course. A Chicago study testing the effect of multiple hits... on pigs (sigh), was inconclusive in determining if they will hurt people. My conclusion: 1/ Tasers are as benign as the swine flu pandemic and; 2/ I should change my morning radio station to easy listening jazz. I am fortunate to have a donor-driven station in my region and have sent in my pledge.
Speaking of pandemics, a Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) report addresses the issues of concern for police (we also have an overview of the Toronto Police Study on pandemics in this issue). Here’s the edited introduction to this paper.
bq. Police officials regularly plan for a variety of man-made and naturally-occurring hazards, especially since the September 11th attacks, but most law enforcement agencies have not yet considered the implications of a disaster that could cause tens of thousands of deaths and devastate police operations – an influenza pandemic.
bq. Many may not realize that flu pandemics are merely not a theoretical threat. As recently as 1968-69, 34,000 people died from the “Hong Kong flu” in the US. As many as 50 million people worldwide (675,000 in the US) died from the “Spanish flu” pandemic of 1918-19.
bq. There are several reasons why a flu pandemic would be a police rather than a public health problem. Officers may be called upon to enforce quarantines, provide security in hospitals swamped with patients and ensure that vaccines – when they became available in limited quantities – could be delivered to those with the greatest need.
bq. Perhaps the biggest reason – whom do people call when anything bad happens? The local public health agency? How many people even know its name, much less its phone number? Public health will take the leading role in dealing with a flu pandemic, but police would be involved from start to finish. As 9-1-1 lines jam with frantic callers, police agencies would respond with a diminished workforce – many employees would be coming down with the potentially fatal flu. Others would have to stay home to care for sick family members or look after their children when schools close.
bq. PERF has produced a report to help police begin analyzing how a flu pandemic would affect their operations and how they can begin planning for such an event. Pandemic planning is particularly complicated in that it requires co-ordination with a wide variety of other public and private agencies.
bq. Advance planning is critically important, because it would almost certainly save countless lives. When a pandemic hits – and experts agree it’s not a matter of if but when – the overall national goal will be to minimize its impact and delay its spread for as long as possible. That’s because it will take the medical establishment some time to produce a vaccine and other drugs, perhaps 20 weeks or more. The more we can slow the spread, the fewer people will die in the early phases while scientists are still scrambling to develop the vaccine.
bq. We can’t afford to “wait and see,” and start thinking about a pandemic after it happens. Lives will depend on getting those plans organized now.