Parsing the Politics of H1N1

President Obama declares H1N1 a national emergency, and pundits debate how big government should respond to the crisis

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President Obama declared H1N1 a national emergency this weekend, giving the federal government broader powers to address the crisis. The health motives are clear: the virus is widespread in 46 states, 11 million doses of vaccine are available--far less than predicted--and polls show that public fears are on the rise. But columnists say the declaration had a political motive as well. Obama is trying to show that the government is responsive to fears, but political commentators point out many pitfalls and alternatives to his approach.

  • How to Save Lives, and Look Responsive Chris Cillizza of The Washington Post says "Obama's announcement, which essentially allows hospitals more leeway in the way they deal with the outbreaks, is rightly understood as an attempt to show the American people that the president understands their concern and is ensuring the government is doing everything it can to help." He says the allusions to President Bush's mishandling of Katrina are obvious. "It's hard not to see the way the Obama administration is handling the H1N1 outbreak through the lens of the Bush Administration's handling of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005."
  • This Shouldn't be Political At The Daily Beast, infectious disease expert Kent Sepkowitz says the country is senselessly consumed with the politics of swine flu. We're obsessed with "whether Obama is playing it up now to gin up support for his health-care initiative; whether the Republicans should stand up against something as flagrantly pinko as universal vaccination; what the cost in votes and press might be of standing here or moving there." Instead, Sepkowitz argues that we should learn the true lesson of H1N1: "vaccination works. It is certain, however, to be a lesson roundly ignored--it is the virus after all that is novel, not the public's response to it."
  • Use Polling Sites to Vaccinate Americans In The New York Times, epidemiology professor Douglas Shenson says the country's election day polling sites are the perfect delivery system for the H1N1 vaccine. "Public health officials must soon decide how and where to deploy health care personnel to administer the H1N1 vaccine. If the pandemic becomes more severe, they will need to deliver the vaccine to large numbers of people while avoiding crowds that would increase the risk of infection. Sites that are universally available and dispersed across all neighborhoods would be ideal."
  • Declaration Hasn't Stopped Worldwide Panic  In The New York Times, Jackie Calmes and Donald G. McNeil Jr. reported that the administration's response hasn't stopped the spread of H1N1 around the world, or the panic here in the United States. "Thousands of Americans have lined up for vaccinations, even as federal officials acknowledged that their ambitious vaccination program has gotten off to a slow start. Only 16 million doses of the vaccine are available now, and about 30 million were expected by the end of the month. Some states have requested 10 times the amount allotted." They noted that there are plans to later distribute the vaccine to poor nations.
  • Heckuva Job, Obama At his blog, former Republic National Committee spokesman Alex Conant says the administration handling of H1N1 is already a "disaster." Conant says "the White House contributed to misbranding it as 'swine flu'; the President distractingly injected politics into the outbreak; and both the President and Vice President delivered incorrect information and advice in the early days." He says "the President should put public health first (or at least before Friday's politicking) and use his microphone to do everything possible to raise awareness of the virus and how to avoid it. Otherwise, his pre-emptive emergency-declaration could be as forgotten as President Bush's declaration prior to Katrina ... and their legacies in dealing with a natural disaster could be the same."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.