This article originally appeared on TomDispatch.
If you can’t find any swine flu vaccine for your kids, it won’t be for a lack of positive thinking. In fact, the whole flu snafu is being blamed on “undue optimism” on the part of both the Obama administration and Big Pharma.
Optimism is supposed to be good for our health. According to the academic “positive psychologists,” as well as legions of unlicensed life coaches and inspirational speakers, optimism wards off common illnesses, contributes to recovery from cancer and extends longevity. To its promoters, optimism is practically a miracle vaccine, so essential that we need to start inoculating Americans with it in the public schools–in the form of “optimism training.”
But optimism turns out to be less than salubrious when it comes to public health. In July, the federal government promised to have 160 million doses of H1N1 vaccine ready for distribution by the end of October. Instead, only 28 million doses are now ready to go, and optimism is the obvious culprit. “Road to Flu Vaccine Shortfall, Paved With Undue Optimism,” was the headline of a front-page article in the October 26 New York Times. In the conventional spin, the vaccine shortage is now “threatening to undermine public confidence in government.” If the federal government couldn’t get this right, the pundits are already asking, how can we trust it with health reform?
But let’s stop a minute and also ask: Who really screwed up here–the government or private pharmaceutical companies, including GlaxoSmithKline, Novartis and three others that had agreed to manufacture and deliver the vaccine by late fall? Last spring and summer, those companies gleefully gobbled up $2 billion worth of government contracts for vaccine production, promising to have every American, or at least every American child and pregnant woman, supplied with vaccine before trick-or-treating season began.
According to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, the government was misled by these companies, which failed to report manufacturing delays as they arose. Her department, she says, was “relying on the manufacturers to give us their numbers, and as soon as we got numbers we put them out to the public. It does appear now that those numbers were overly rosy.”
If, in fact, there’s a political parable here, it’s about Big Government’s sweetly trusting reliance on Big Business to safeguard the public health: let the private insurance companies manage health financing; let profit-making hospital chains deliver healthcare; let Big Pharma provide safe and affordable medications. As it happens, though, all these entities have a priority that regularly overrides the public’s health, and that is, of course, profit–which has led insurance companies to function as “death panels,” excluding those who might ever need care, and for-profit hospitals to turn away the indigent, the pregnant and the uninsured.