America Sneezes 

Failure on H1N1 highlights a bigger crisis

NEW YORK--America's lame (non-)response to the swine flu pandemic isn't a big deal. Not compared to, say, the melting of the polar ice cap. It isn't torture. Or war. It pales next to giving hundreds of billions of dollars to wealthy bankers and nothing to homeowners facing foreclosure. But it sure is interesting.

First, the Obama administration committed the classic mistake of governance: They overpromised and underdelivered, failing to ensure Americans had enough H1N1 vaccine. Early estimates of 120 million doses fell to 40 million, then 28 million. In fairness, vaccine production is an inherently unpredictable business; the swine flu antigen simply grew slower than that of other flus.

But even after the feds learned there wouldn't be enough vaccine, they urged everyone to demand it from their doctors. Lines sprang up outside clinics. At many locations, hundreds of people were turned away.

More telling was the White House's inability to see the crisis coming coupled with its knee-jerk reliance on free markets. With the air out of the capitalist balloon since September 2008, why would Obama & Co. trust private corporations? A pandemic calls for a sweeping response such as temporary or permanent nationalization of drug companies.

Moreover, the decision to outsource most production overseas baffles the mind. Four out of five vaccine makers hired by the U.S. government were in other countries. Also indicative of the "can't do" spirit in the Age of Obama is the government's unwillingness to impose common sense on employers.

A century after the rise of unionism, nearly 40 percent of private-sector workers get no paid sick days. Add that to employees who have already used their allotment and are afraid to take a day off lest they get targeted for layoffs, and you've got trouble: tens of millions of people mixing at work, many of them with a contagious, potentially lethal virus.

One of the nation's largest employers threatens to fire workers who get sick. Reports The New York Times: "At Walmart, when employees miss one or more days because of illness or other reasons, they generally get a demerit point. Once employees obtain four points over a six-month period, they begin receiving warnings that can lead to dismissal."

A country with a strong, well-run government would order employers to give all employees with flu-like symptoms paid time off from work.

One of the most reliable indicators of a country's political and social viability is its ability to respond to an emergency. The United States has faced four major challenges this century: the stolen election of 2000, 9/11, Katrina and the depression that began a year ago. Each crisis metastasized within a different medium (politics, military, domestic governance, economy), each essential to maintaining a successful nation. Tellingly, the country failed each test.

Will the H1N1 pandemic rise to those events' status as signal catastrophes? I don't know. But it highlights what many of us have suspected for years: The United States has entered an irreversible decline.

Ted Rall is the author of The Year of Loving Dangerously.

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