Tough on Swine Flu
The Ukrainian government’s response to H1N1 is excessive
The Ukrainian government’s policies on swine flu make quarantines and Purell dispensers look like amateur efforts. Due to rising fears about a possible swine flu epidemic, Ukrainian Prime Minister Yuliya V. Tymoshenko announced a nationwide ban on public gatherings, the closing of all schools for three weeks, and various travel restrictions. The strict measures come at a critical time in the Ukrainian presidential campaign, with Tymoshenko closely trailed by opposition leader Victor Yanukovich in the polls. Although we realize that the spread of H1N1 is a serious health issue, these measures seem extreme and dubious given the election climate. Ukraine’s swine flu policy needs to be better justified or called off.
We realize that H1N1 is a serious health problem for many countries. H1N1 is a new virus whose timing, duration, and severity are still uncertain. Moreover, the treatment of this disease is difficult, especially in countries like Ukraine whose medical infrastructure does not equal that of other Western countries. The severity of the disease in Ukraine, however, does not seem to merit the drastic steps the government has taken. Although national health officials have cited 33 flu deaths in support of the measure, they have not definitively specified how many of these deaths were a result of swine flu and how many were a result of other viruses. Additionally, to put this count in perspective, the Centers for Disease Control reported 292 swine flu deaths in the U.S. from just August 30 to October 10, 2009. Ukraine’s anti-swine flu measures are also markedly more extreme than those of neighboring Russia and Poland.
Furthermore, the H1N1 virus should not become politicized. The government should prioritize health in its response, not politics. In Ukraine, combating swine flu seems to have turned into a contest among politicians to see who can be most aggressive when addressing public-health issues. However, the most extreme political response is not always the best one, and the ability to calibrate a measured response is as valuable as the ability to execute a far-reaching one. Public health is not a political game, and Ukraine’s leaders must realize that the cost of an overblown response is more material than a few points at the polls.
Regardless of the intentions behind these measures, though, we have further concerns that these steps may become undemocratic, especially given the ban on public gatherings during an election season. In losing the ability to gather in large groups, supporters of Yanukovich have lost their best avenue to advocate for their candidate. The free and easy public discourse that is vital to a democratic election in this instance seems clearly impaired. Ukraine’s troubling recent history with elections makes it especially vital that this campaign proceed as fairly and smoothly as possible. Otherwise, the same election uncertainties that engendered the “Orange Revolution” four years ago may this time around cause a “Swine Flu Revolution.”