Mexico: Swine flu, health and profits

Issue 

Streets that bustled only two weeks ago are eerily quiet.

School playgrounds and university lecture halls are deserted. Museums, cinemas, libraries and many restaurants are shuttered.

And most people — from children playing in the streets to workers going about their business — are wearing the ubiquitous blue surgical masks.

Yet another international health emergency has emerged: swine influenza.

Type A H121 influenza, swine flu, resists human immunity, has no vaccine, and sprouted in an underdeveloped country with struggling health services.

Now that international air travel allows people to cross the world in a matter of hours, it seems that pigs really can fly: countries as far apart as Peru, New Zealand, Austria and the US have reported cases of swine flu.

Although swine flu is undoubtedly a real danger, it can be prevented when simple protective measures are taken. It can be adequately treated with antivirals such as Tamiflu when treated within the 48 hours of infection.

This has not stopped the Mexican President Felipe Calderon, who won the 2006 elections through massive voter fraud, from using the outbreak to decree authoritarian laws. Health authorities have been granted emergency powers to detain any person suspected of being infected with swine flu. Authorities also have the right to enter any shop or home.

This occurs in a context of already increased militarisation. The military is already mobilised on the streets in the name of the "war on drugs". This latest move appears to be taking advantage of the swine flu outbreak to extend state powers.

The media are whipping up a hysterical frenzy over swine flu. Yet, there is no mention of the World Health Organisation estimate of the between 250,000-500,000 people who die each year from seasonal influenza.

The outbreak has highlighted the importance of strong state health systems and government responses.

The real problem facing Mexico is not an uncontrollable epidemic, but that its health system, run down by governments following neoliberal prescriptions set out in the US-enforced North America Free Trade Agreement, risks making the situation much worse than it needs to be.

This latest health emergency points to the need for well-maintained public health systems, global access to generic drugs, proper regulation, infrastructure for surveillance of public health issues, food industries and livestock diseases.

The Third World, with its high-density populations, dilapidated health-care systems, weakened or non-existent social services and poor populaces, is acutely vulnerable to wide-scale health problems. It will suffer more from this outbreak.

The World Bank and International Monetary Fund actually mandated the privatisation of many Third World countries´ health systems as part of structural adjustment programs. Implementing such programs are a condition for poor countries receiving needed loans.

The impact of swine flu has already impacted on the lives of Mexico's people, half of whom live in poverty. The outbreak has diminished work for the millions of people in Mexico City's informal sector , who rely on income from street stalls.

The AFP said on April 30 that flu-related closures are costing Mexico US$57 million per day.

The swine flu outbreak has also drawn attention to the corporate practices of agricultural and pharmaceutical industries, which routinely place business over health.

The pharmaceutical industry's stranglehold on global health prevents swift and efficient measures from being taken in the event of health crises. Third World governments are forced to rely on pharmaceutical companies to supply medicines. The needed prescription flu treatment Tamiflu is produced by the Roche corporation.

Already, giant drug manufacturer GlaxoSmithKline's stock prices have increased by 8% since the announcement of the swine flu outbreak.

Health care is out of our control. Giant drug manufacturers profit from privatised health systems that prevent patented drugs from being distributed en masse in generic formats to those who need them.

A profound health crisis already exists in the world. This is not a screaming headlines and surgical masks- type crisis. It is largely silent.

For the 3 billion people who live on less than $2 per day, decent health care is a distant dream.

Only when the "free market" approach to health is abandoned and life-saving drugs are wrangled from the corporations can a comprehensive approach to health care and pandemic prevention be adopted.