Philip Alcabes discusses myths of health, disease and risk.

Public Health Crisis or Publicity Crisis?

At Effect Measure today, revere draws a valuable distinction between the position of CDC and that of New York’s municipal government regarding the closing of schools to prevent the spread of flu.  Pointing out that “it’s a strain to which there is no natural immunity in the school population of students or staff,” revere notes that  CDC’s “first instincts were sound, and to their credit they have not engaged in the tendency to minimize the seriousness of the situation that [Mayor] Bloomberg and [Health Commissioner] Frieden have yielded to.”

Nobody knows how dangerous this flu strain might become, of course, but you can’t argue with revere’s logic from a contagion-control standpoint.  But is this really a matter of contagion control?  No, it’s not.

The Queens and Brooklyn school closings were announced amidst a political battle being fought on what, in New York, is always the bitterest of ground:  public schools.  The mayor took control of the public school system when he took office, but he needs legislation now to maintain that control  Parents are up in arms about the school system’s incapacity to provide seats in local schools for children as young as 5 years old.  The mayor can’t risk alienating any more parents — it would only take one child contracting flu in school and dying of it to provide fodder that could be fatal to the mayor’s effort to retain control of the schools.

Plus, the mayor is up for re-election.   Plus plus, the mayor is bringing in a new health commissioner (Dr. Thomas Farley) on short notice — one who is strongly allied with outgoing commissioner Frieden’s view that a good health official is a moralistic meddler in people’s lives.  Bloomberg needs to make sure everyone believes that the flu situation is dire so that his decision to forego a careful search and precipitately appoint as commissioner a Frieden colleague will seem wise.

By closing schools, Bloomberg resolves two legitimation crises, the disgruntled parents of mistreated grade-school children are deprived of one weapon to use against him, and — since the flu is mild and as summer is coming it will undoubtedly retreat soon anyway — Bloomberg is going to come out of this looking smart and proactive.

So be careful about interpreting the NYC school closings as a public health measure.  Politics and publicity are still the bottom line.  Welcome to Bloomberg’s New York.

Tags: , , , .

This entry was posted on Monday, May 18th, 2009 at 8:08 pm and is filed under Disease, Outbreaks, public health. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.