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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Swine flu Obama's homeland security test

By David Shapiro

Vice President Joe Biden caused a stir last year when he predicted that President Barack Obama would be tested by a homeland security crisis early in his administration.

It evoked visions of terrorists from the Middle East; little did anybody think the invader would be a pig virus from south of the border.

The reported cases of swine flu in the United States have been mild so far compared to the more than 150 deaths in Mexico, but flu epidemics can escalate rapidly and it's no surprise that Americans are on edge.

Beyond the health fears are the potentially devastating economic impacts that could deepen what is already our worst financial crisis since the Great Depression and wipe out what few gains the economy has made.

As people avoid travel and hunker down even more than they already have, Hawai'i's tourism-dependent economy could be hit especially hard, even if the flu never reaches our shores.

Obama has confronted the swine flu threat with the "no drama" style that's become the signature of his young administration.

He's shown behind-the-scenes urgency in bringing federal resources to bear on preparing for the worst, but publicly he's displayed calm and urged Americans to do the same, trying to assure us that he's on top of the situation and that there's no reason for undue alarm at this point.

Promoting public calm while putting the government on full alert to prepare for the possibility of a pandemic seems to be the smart way to go assuming the administration really is keeping ahead of the curve and not stumbling through the threat as the Bush administration did with Katrina.

It's a test that Obama can't afford to fail, or the consequences could be deadly in more ways than one.

In Hawai'i, local leaders are following the same tack of encouraging calm while taking steps to deal with the swine flu if it arrives here.

There have been no reported local cases yet, but we could become vulnerable because of all the traffic at our airport, where the state has increased screening of incoming passengers.

Gov. Linda Lingle, briefing reporters along with her top public health and civil defense administrators, said the state is on full alert, but she sees no reason to declare an emergency at this point.

Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann said essentially the same thing that there's no need to panic and we have time to make smart preparations for whatever is to come, both individually and as a community.

It's good that the governor and mayor are both spreading the right message, but a bit of a red flag that they were saying it separately, leaving us to worry that disconnected paths could ultimately lead to conflict.

As we've seen in the arm wrestling over the worst budget crisis in Hawai'i's history, our leaders aren't very good at putting aside their personal rivalries to work together on even the most severe threats to the public welfare.

If we get a flu pandemic, lives will be at stake and we really need them to step up for us and not engage in politics, politics, politics as usual.

Even if the swine flu is contained, people are almost certainly going to be hesitant to travel until the situation shakes out, which can only knock our already sinking economy even further into the tank.

We learned from the SARS scare in 2003 that there's little the state can do to counter the short-term consequences of these outside events, but it's even more reason for our political leaders to project a united front to inspire confidence that we know what we're doing.

David Shapiro, a veteran Hawai'i journalist, can be reached by e-mail at dave@volcanicash.net. His columns are archived at www.volcanicash.net. Read his daily blog at blogs.honoluluadvertiser.com.