Touria Prayag's Blog

Read L’express Weekly, 16 July 2010

Posted in Uncategorized by touriaprayag on July 16, 2010

Editorial  Click here to read L’express Weekly

Being economical with the truth

I’m not an expert on Swine Flu and I’m not about to get in between some doctors and their minister who are butting heads with each other on a subject I know little about. We are not into fear mongering or sensationalistic propaganda either. My concern stops at communication between those we have entrusted with the running of this country and us, poor mortals, seeking that precious thing which makes our job possible: information.

“We have nothing to hide,” says Mrs. Hanoomanjee. Sadly, this reminds me of President Nixon’s historical statement in relation to the Watergate case, “I am not a crook.” More defensive than that, you die, as the French would say….

After the psychosis of last year, following half a dozen deaths due to the A (H1N1) virus, we now know that, though the speed of its spread is startling, Swine Flu is no more dangerous than the typical seasonal flu. This does not mean that we underestimate it or that we want to catch it. What it means is that both types of flu can kill and that the seasonal flu appears to cause more deaths than Swine Flu. We also know, having gone through it once, that the psychosis which swamped the world last year is unlikely to get the better of us this year. Our heads have cooled off sufficiently not to cross that fine line between reasonable elementary precautions –basically, wash your hands and stay home if you are feverish- and paranoia –someone sneezed, quick, call security.

So, why is history repeating itself? Why does history always repeat itself? Whether we are in 2006 facing the Chikungunya epidemic, in 2009 facing both Dengue Fever and Swine Flu or in 2010 facing the same Swine Flu again but with a full understanding of it and a stock of vaccines which were in the realm of dreams in 2009, the pattern is the same: the minister gives figures which are systematically greeted by contest from the medical profession and cynicism from the public.

The proliferating secrecy surrounding Swine Flu raises a lot of red flags and a lot of questions that have yet to be answered. Forget about whether the number of people contaminated with Swine Flu did actually grow from 0 to 124 cases almost overnight. Forget about whether the minister did or did not initially say that there were no cases of the virus before admitting to the 124 cases. What is more worrying is that the medical profession seems to be convinced that even the figure the minister eventually owned up to is grossly understated.

The paternalistic (or should I say maternalistic) approach adopted by the minister (I won’t tell you the truth because you cannot handle it) coupled with the line of communication adopted by the ministry (if you want information go and find it somewhere else) do not help the finger of blame to point elsewhere and the minister has missed her chance of making a good first impression.

We are in this for the long haul and there are no quick fixes. So, we have every interest in putting an end to the misinformation chaos. A properly informed population is a properly armed one. And we need every weapon we can use. The minister will not achieve a thing if she does not gain public trust. And public trust can only be gained through clear, honest and ample information.

Yes, of course, the fear of a psychosis is there. But avoiding that is also the minister’s responsibility. And that can definitely not be achieved through being economical with the truth.


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