There are a lot of reasons to be sceptical about the threat posed to humanity — and Australia specifically — by the latest outbreak of swine flu. There have been very few deaths recorded and the virus does not seem to be comprehensively spreading too far or too fast. But it would be a foolish government or international health organisation that got complacent and ignored the possible consequences of this flu getting a proper grip and turning into a real pandemic. And really, when it comes down to it, if the World Health Organisation, which is infinitely more qualified to judge the risk posed by swine flu than me or any newspaper columnist, is sufficiently concerned to raise its threat level to five out of six, governments should start to take notice.

But it’s not good enough for Andrew Bolt, who sees yet another chance to lay the boot into the government and Kevin “Do Something” Rudd (see the way he attaches those two words to Rudd’s name every time he writes it now?)

Despite acknowledging that the authorities are “paid to keep us safe”, Andrew has a crack at the government for — God forbid! — having a plan in place to deal with a disease pandemic. How very irresponsible of them. Bolt claims that this excerpt from The SMH shows ministers “inflaming what they claim to be calming”

AUSTRALIANS have been advised to stockpile food and water after the World Health Organisation raised its swine flu alert to phase five yesterday, indicating an imminent pandemic. The Federal Government’s pandemic plan, a 132-page manual issued to medics, media and the public, insists that once the world reaches phase five, Australians should stock their pantries with food and bottled water to last 14 days, check on elderly neighbours and put emergency numbers by the phone.

Sure, that first line says “Australians have been advised to…”, but the next paragraph, conveniently left out of Bolt’s quote in his post, reads:

But yesterday a spokesman for the Department of Health and Ageing called for calm, saying the Government did not want to spark panic buying – ignoring its own plan, already issued to hospitals across the nation.

So the plan’s been issued to hospitals due to a phase five warning from the WHO, the department has made a statement telling people to calm down and not follow the plan, but Bolt still says the government is over-reacting and causing panic.

Bolt cites two other examples of the Rudd Government “doing something”, and they both involve setting up plans and powers that would be required during a full-blown pandemic: compulsory quarantine of suspected flu cases and border security in ports. Would either of these powers be extreme if a pandemic were to occur? Isn’t it sensible for the government to put those powers in place before a pandemic starts rather than after?

The thing is, if there’s any body responsible for whipping up panic it is the media. Every news organisation, in every medium, has been leading sensationalist end-of-days tales of apocalypse, giving readers useless advice about how to survive the flu and building a climate of fear based upon an I Am Legend picture of mass destruction. They’re all guilty of it: Fairfax and News Ltd., commercial and non-commercial. If anyone should be fingered for promoting fear it is the profession of which Andrew Bolt is a member rather than his hated “Do Something” Rudd Government. And if anything, the government is only trying to calm the panic that the media has irresponsibly created.

As Bolt says, our administrators are paid to keep us safe, and keeping us safe requires planning for all possible scenarios, including the worst one. With the WHO declaring a phase five emergency it is only prudent that our government puts plans and powers in place to enact the moment a pandemic occurs. To do otherwise would be negligent. Bolt has every right to be sceptical about swine flu, and his scepticism makes a lot of sense, but it is disingenuous in the extreme to accuse Kevin Rudd or the government of dishonestly fear mongering or inducing panic.

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