Human Exceptionalism

Did the World Health Organizaton Exaggerate H1N1 Dangers?

We are in the midst of a destabilizing societal crisis of confidence–and for good reason.  In government, politics, law, diplomacy, media, science, religion, business, athletics, the academy–you name it–we have witnessed incompetence, mendacity, politicization masking for objectivity, corruption, and venality.  And now, the World Health Organization is being accused of exaggerating the dangers of the H1Ni flu. From the story:

European criticism of the World Health Organization’s handling of the H1N1 pandemic intensified Friday with the release of two reports that accused the agency of exaggerating the threat posed by the virus and failing to disclose possible influence by the pharmaceutical industry on its recommendations for how countries should respond. The WHO’s response caused widespread, unnecessary fear and prompted countries around the world to waste millions of dollars, according to one report. At the same time, the Geneva-based arm of the United Nations relied on advice from experts with ties to drug makers in developing the guidelines it used to encourage countries to stockpile millions of doses of antiviral medications, according to the second report.

Ay, yi yi. The WHO denies the charge:

A spokesman for the WHO, along with several independent experts, however, strongly disputed the reports, saying they misrepresented the seriousness of the pandemic and the WHO’s response, which was carefully formulated and necessary given the potential threat. “The idea that we declared a pandemic when there wasn’t a pandemic is both historically inaccurate and downright irresponsible,” said WHO spokesman Gregory Hartl in a telephone interview. “There is no doubt that this was a pandemic. To insinuate that this was not a pandemic is very disrespectful to the people who died from it.”

I really hope WHO is right here. I did not criticize the anti pandemic efforts when the worst case did not come to pass. Indeed, I worry that we put our institutions in an untenable position, expecting perfect calibrations–so as to not be unduly inconveniencing, but yet, enough to “keep us safe” (I am so sick of that term!).  Thus, as far as I was concerned–and wrote here–the  happy fact that the pandemic never really gathered the kind of steam we were warned against did not mean the precautions taken by our public health officials were not proper and worthwhile–and in fact, I have thought that they might be a reason that the apocalypse never came. (Not that I didn’t criticize known hysterics at the ever unreliable UN, which demanded hundreds of millions–as always does–when it issued a report warning of millions dead and widespread anarchy.)

But if  the pending investigations determine that decisions were made about the H1N1 that were not based on proper science but for other improper motives, not only will there be hell to pay the next time a pandemic threatens, but it will crush what little trust remains in our public institutions.  More than ever, those in power need to be aware of the stakes of failing to live up to their public charge. Because it sure feels to me like the wheels are coming off the wagon.

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