H1N1, issues management and disaster response

Would it surprise you, gentle reader, that every morning (early morning!) a senior staffer from each ministry gathers with their peers from other ministries at Langevin to discuss the issues of the day and what fallout — both actual and political — may come from events that have either happened or may transpire?

If this doesn’t surprise you, it may indeed shock you (ok, it probably won’t) that issues management has a greater concern about political fallout and much of this focus is centred upon not so much the opposition’s line of attack on an issue but the media’s distillation of what the government of the day is doing about it?

Let’s put this in perspective and consider a real failure in this approach as it informs not simply the shuffling of public funds, but of a nation’s emergency response to potential disasters.

Remember H1N1?

Back in the fall it was all the rage. Bodybags sent to native reserves, an opposition raising a five-alarm fire for the government’s vaccines on order to the President of the Liberal Party describing H1N1 as “Harper’s Katrina”.

And one of the shallowest measures and glibly tangible critiques of the government? A comparison of spending on those “clandestinely partisan” (critics say) ads telling Canadians that — good-golly-gosh — the economy is going to get better and that government is leading the way, with the government effort on those “sneeze in your arm, not on your hands, you yob” adverts.

Here is a Liberal blogger’s summary of her party’s critique of the whole episode,

After being publicly embarrassed by the media, the Harper Conservatives have said they will act on H1N1 television advertising. After the CP report on the government’s spending five times more on its economic action plan ads than H1N1 preparation loudly made the rounds Sunday afternoon, the Conservatives started the damage control Sunday night. It’s not a tough concept to grasp, after all. Nobody likes a government spending money in its own interest to the detriment of a major public health issue

Issues management kicks into high gear! Bruce Cheadle of the Canadian Press, a wire reporter turned impassioned advocated for the commercially unbalanced, did indeed take a swipe at the governing party over their ‘too blue’ and ‘too Harper’ website on the Economic Action Plan and found that spending on economic ebullience was taking precedence over pandemic placation.

I remarked on this fallacy at the time,

Another criticism highlighted in the CP story is that the latest round of Economic Action Plan ads cost the government $5 million compared to $2 million spent on H1N1 ads.

Here are two issues that have a psychological component.

For economic stimulus, a large part of its purpose and success is affecting consumer confidence. As for H1N1, handwashing and vaccine readiness helps but fueling hysteria does not.

Now that we’ve had a chance to see the virulent dust clear, we have word that the government…over-reacted?,

The federal government spent $37-million on advertising and other communications around the H1N1 flu pandemic, more than it devoted to anti-viral drugs or managing the outbreak combined, according to newly divulged cost figures.

A prominent critic of government response to H1N1 said much of that ad blitz came after the epidemic had peaked, urging Canadians to get flu shots at a time when they were virtually pointless.

“If it’s well spent for a legitimate medical emergency, that’s fine,” said Dr. Richard Schabas, Ontario’s former chief medical officer of health, who has repeatedly argued that public-health agencies over-reacted to the pandemic.

“It was the persistence of the immunization program, the persistence of the advertising after the outbreak had passed that really I find most offensive.”

Digging up a Liberal press release,

Last week, the House of Commons adopted a Liberal motion calling for the allocation of the $400 million in pandemic response funds to help the provinces deliver vaccines to Canadians, plus additional planning support, and the diversion of partisan Economic Action Plan advertising funding towards a large-scale H1N1 awareness campaign.

Dr. Schabas’ position is alluded to without specific reference to his actual view in the press release dated November 10th of last year. The Liberals advocated for a massive diversion of funds into an awareness campaign “as Canadians grow increasingly concerned that they won’t be vaccinated until well after the peak of the H1N1 flu”.

Our mothers always said that it’s better to be safe than sorry, but Schabas is actually criticizing the over-response and wasted spending on H1N1 advertising! Misallocation of H1N1 funds, needled into the wrong place, could have had a disastrous effect.

I’d argue that this is a way in which politics and media sensationalism hurts good and measured public policy informed by the most pressing facts. Issues management became a reaction to political fallout at the expense of a good and measured response. To be sure, the worst case scenario would have been if for some reason the politics had skewed the response in the other direction and the event had been much more pronounced.

How do we safeguard our consideration of real and informed concern when it faces an unhelpfully loud and very present sensationalism motivated by unrelated selfish considerations?

A real issue to manage. Unfortunately, it’s apolitical.

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