There are few countries in the world where the threat of a potential avian flu pandemic has not hit the radar. We hear much of the fearsome destructive potential of such a virus, were it to transmit easily from human to human. A lot had to be said – and said again – to catch the attention of a global audience (particularly a western one) that must feel it is constantly facing one global scourge after the other. However, now that an awareness of the threat has been raised, it is time to notice the degree of cooperation, conference and self- initiated action that has gone on at both the global and the national level in the face of it. If (or when, depending on you point of view) the virus mutates and begins to burn around the world, this cooperation may change. Stress lines become fissures and a global ”siege mentality” could kick in. To date, the response has been admirable.
Governments – especially our own – have acted quickly in trying to identify and to address the key issues such as anti-viral shortfalls, vaccine development, quarantine measures and so on. Governments, international health agencies and international drug companies are taking responsibility and trying to act with vigour and transparency. Detailed plans have been produced telling us how governments will act, how the disease and potential vaccines may act, but the shadow question – the big variable – is how we, individual people, will behave. Personal responsibility has never really been a significant component of public health policy. But should we always rely immediately and completely on the government to deliver us from threats to our common security? Don’t we as individuals have a role to play in keeping ourselves and our society safe? The question mark hangs over the degree of personal social responsibility individuals will take under stress. The ramifications of the question don’t limit themselves to an as-yet unmutated (but still very possible) pandemic of killer flu. However, the current global alert has thrown the issue into stark relief.
During the SARS epidemic, the Singaporean government – facing what they felt at the time was the real possibility of extinction – ran a campaign touting personal social responsibility as ”the best defence”. It gave out ”top 10 tips” on how individuals could fight SARS. These were based on common sense. People were encouraged to keep themselves well-informed, to attend carefully to personal hygiene, to familiarise themselves with the symptoms of SARS, to monitor their temperature regularly and to build up their immunity. They were urged also to protect their families and those in the community around them by educating children and the elderly on the proper safety precautions, staying away from work or school if they felt unwell, wearing a face mask if they were travelling to the doctor, and keeping the Home Quarantine Order if served. These are obvious but important guidelines that could apply to any epidemic, but the broader point is the emphasis on personal social responsibility.
Federal Health Minister Tony Abbott touched on the issue in a very sensible speech on the subject of a possible avian flu pandemic in Ottawa , in Canada , on October 26. He referred quite rightly to the ”reserves of character” that would be required in ”accepting risk, acknowledging that much won’t work out as planned, and facing the prospect of untimely death”. Not something Australians are used to doing, he went on to note. The values he referred to are the intangible resources we will need if a pandemic hits. In looking at the effects on public health in complex emergencies, it seems the divide between success and failure rests on the degree to which citizens act responsibly, and in concert with the government and the military. The effectiveness of this concert in action was evident in the national response to the massive floods in Switzerland earlier this year. In turn, the Government should encourage people to look after themselves. Engaging the population in practical tasks to increase their safety would surely also alleviate some anxiety by restoring a sense of control, however small. We do not want to see a situation similar to that of Hurricane Katrina, where some people trying to look after themselves were stopped by government officials, while others shed all sense of social responsibility and went on looting sprees.
The attitudes of the affected population will determine whether order is maintained or lost if familiar external structures are removed by catastrophe. A pandemic – unlike say a bushfire – has inherent polarising qualities: the threat is invisible, unfamiliar and unpredictable, and anyone could be a carrier. The carelessness of one person could result in the infection of hundreds. This increases the propensity for panic. People have to be reminded they are not helpless. Personal social responsibility is a tangible resource we can use to fight a possible pandemic. It costs nothing, and it could well be the best defence we have against all manner of threats to our common security.
Miranda Darling is an Adjunct Scholar at The Centre for Independent Studies.