The human instinct to arbitrarily select threats about which to panic, with a little help from the media, is proving very costly in the case of Swine Flu.
It apparently matters little that Australia’s Chief Medical Officer yesterday made a point of saying how mild Swine Flu was and how there was no need for alarm. We’re spending tens of millions of dollars because politicians — understandably — don’t want to be caught out responding to Swine Flu the way it should be addressed — with the same urgent response with which the nation met the great toe-stubbing epidemic of 1997 — when there’s the faintest chance an Australian could die from it.
Australians of course will die from flu this year, as they do every year, but for whatever reasons lurking deep in human psychology — porcine imagery, xenophobia, GFC-induced uncertainty — the far milder Swine Flu is what is sending Australia’s health system into overdrive.
And that costs money. Last time I made this point, a number of readers suggested I had no understanding of preventative health. But in the absence of a magic pudding, every dollar spent by a government is a choice with an opportunity cost and we’re spending a lot on swine flu that could be spent on more serious health issues.
Yesterday Nicola Roxon announced $43m would be spent buying additional courses of vaccine. That’s the vaccine for normal flu, by the way, not Swine Flu. That doesn’t exist yet and may not exist until after the pandemic is over, but the Government has pre-ordered that too, from CSL. They’re not saying how much that will cost, or what will be done with it if Swine Flu has disappeared by July or August.
It’s not Nicola Roxon’s fault. The politician hasn’t been born yet who’d be willing to stand up and say that the public, particularly the media, should stop treating swine flu as a biblical plague when there are lots more serious health matters to be dealt with.
The worried well are also rushing GPs with every sniffle, throat tickle and case of “not feeling 100%”. Monthly figures for GP visits are quite volatile, but centre around the 6-7m mark according to Medicare statistics. If there’s a million extra GP visits over April and May because of panic about Swine Flu, that will cost taxpayers $33.5m, based on GPs charging for Level B consultations, which have an MBS fee of $33.55.
Then there’s the cost of dislocation caused by school closures and what might become widespread business closures. Right across the country large businesses will be breaking out their risk management plans and wondering who can work from home.
This week a rumour has swept Parliament House that a public servant attending Estimates hearings had been sent home sick and tested positive for Swine Flu. Problematically, the relevant department isn’t scheduled to appear at Estimates til next week, but that didn’t stop questions being asked on multiple occasions of Nicola Roxon, who declined to “engage in speculation”.
Should Swine Flu spread in Parliament House, of course, there’ll be a push for MPs not to return next week, given the massive influx of people sitting weeks entail and capacity for returning staff and politicians to spread it into every electorate in the country. After this week’s playground antics, that may not be such a bad thing, but there is the business of government to transact quite apart from what happens in Question Time.
Our politicians and health chiefs might simply be playing it safe, but that approach comes with its costs and they’re not small and they won’t stop growing for some time.