Ordinary people and the ordinary flu

(published on The Jakarta Post, August 10 2009)

In classic psychological theory, it is known that knowledge (understanding) and behavior (action) are two strongly related traits. Someone’s understanding of something will affect their action regarding it. It is understanding that drives action. This simple theory seems better able to answer any confusion or disappointment about government action on the H1N1 influenza pandemic.

People are confused, disappointed and even extremely angry with the action taken and statements made, particularly those irrelevant and underestimating remarks continuously made by the ministry. Instead of focusing on preventive and curative action, they spend so many resources in spreading (unintentionally?) unproductive information. We know now that it is the ministry’s understanding of the situation that makes them act the way they do.

A few days ago, the Health Minister said the H1N1 virus is no different from the ordinary flu. This must be based on her expert knowledge and again, it is this knowledge that encouraged her to say what she did. If this is true, then her claim that 90 percent of Indonesian people know how to avoid the H1N1 because they are familiar with the ordinary flu must be true as well. But is it true that they are not different? and is she right that 90 percent of Indonesian people know what to do?

As an ordinary person who reads the papers and is seeing the progress of the pandemic and the government’s response to it, I would say the minister was not right. My reason is so simple and ordinary: what the minister has done did not reflect what she said.

Through the official website, the ministry announced that the institution made preparations for this flu, including supporting the port health office (by giving them thermal scanners and health alert cards to be completed by incoming passengers), preparing referral hospitals, supplying logistics, improving contact investigation, ILI surveillance, laboratory, communication, education and information, as well as conforming to International Health Regulations (IHR).

What do these actions mean? If H1N1 really wasn’t any different, why would they take these special measures? Why didn’t they keep silent just like how they do in facing the ordinary flu? It really means something. It means that H1N1 is different from the ordinary flu. Even a 5th grade student knows this logic!

Biologically, they are indeed different. The ordinary flu is most often an infection of one of the 99 known serotypes of rhinovirus, a type of picornavirus. Around 30-50 percent of colds are caused by rhinoviruses. Other cold causing viruses include coronavirus, human parainfluenza viruses, human respiratory syncytial virus, adenoviruses, enteroviruses and metapneumovirus. About 5-15 percent are caused by influenza viruses.

The influenza virus is a RNA virus of the family Orthomyxoviridae of which there are three genera: Influenzavirus A, Influenzavirus B and Influenzavirus C. Some serotypes of Influenzavirus A are: H1N1(which caused Spanish flu in 1918 and the 2009 flu pandemic), H2N2 (which caused the Asian Flu in 1957), H3N2 (which caused the Hong Kong Flu in 1968), H5N1 (the current bird flu), H7N7 (which has unusual zoonotic potential), H1N2 (endemic in humans and pigs), H9N2, H7N2, H7N3 and H10N7. They are categorized by scientists into many groups and given many names according to their different characteristics.

The minister could have intended her statement to discourage people from panicking. But a minister should be wiser than that when trying to bring calm.

Indonesian people are heterogenic in many ways, including in their way of understanding. Her statement could be counterproductive for some people. The assumption that H1N1 is no different from the ordinary flu will affect how people react.

They might treat it as the flu they know and do nothing different. Highly aware people with a and good understanding of influenza viruses will acting appropriately as usual, but ordinary people who don’t have that understanding will act inappropriately as usual.

I am not one to give advice to the experts, but I ask for wisdom and support from the government. What can calm the people down is honest and comprehensive information about this pandemic and step-by-step guidance on how to avoid infection and what to do if we are infected.

What we expect is that people can get the vaccination like in other countries. What we need is a guarantee that the antiviral medicines are available at drugstores at an affordable price at any time. What we do not want is to get confused and disappointed by the government’s confusing statements.

The best thing the government could do to reduce people’s confusion is to stop being confused itself, otherwise we will become a confused and confusing country.

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