Of course, who's to blame them? With the country mired in two wars and a scary recession, and the city facing deep budget cuts across the board, there are plenty of things to worry about. Yet if the city, and nation, showed as much sustained interest in health care reform as we have in recent weeks with swine flu, perhaps the government would have been pressured to fix the broken health care system long ago.
Indeed, as the swine flu virus shows signs of slowing down, health care experts have started moving the discussion away from immediate risk management issues to a broader debate on the role people and their governments can play in dealing with large health risks. The scare has raised questions analysts will puzzle over for some time to come.
Why have so many more people died of the virus in Mexico than elsewhere? How much control should governments exert over civilian populations during times of health crisis? And how effective, really, is the World Health Organization's new, six-level alert system, introduced after the avian flu of 2005?
In New York, city health officials responded hesitantly at first, then moved boldly to stem the flu's virus once it broke out amongst students at St. Francis Prep in Fresh Meadows. This response mirrored the Obama Administration's, which was criticized in the flu's earliest stages as not swift enough, and the World Health Organization's, which waffled with the idea of raising the alert status to a first-ever level six, then settled for a record-setting level five, indicating a "pandemic is imminent."
Even before schools began shutting in Queens and across the country, parents, unsure who to turn to for advice, were forced to take matters into their own hands and decide what to do with their children. Some confused New Yorkers, here and there, even took to wearing protecting breathing masks, though nobody here called for them.
In Mexico City, where the flu was first believed to have originated (new reports indicate the virus was likely born among pigs in Europe and Asia), the government simply shut all non-essential services down and left residents to fend for themselves in a country with an inconsistent health care system partly responsible for the large numbers of flu-related deaths.
Health care professionals have been working around the clock since the flu was first detected, but that doesn't mean they can't be better prepared in advance for the next time. Once the dust finally settles and health leaders assess their response to this global crisis, will they give themselves a passing grade?