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Licensed to Ill

Bless you! Feeling achy? Fevery? Shouldnít you be at home? I mean, after all, you wouldnít want to spread swine flu to your coworkers or customers, would you? Would you?

There are a lot of unknowns about the current outbreak of swine flu: Whether the death rate is really as high in Mexico as is being claimed; whether it will become a pandemic; how fast we can make a vaccine; why itís spreading now, outside of the usual flu season. Itís scary, of course, as unknowns always are, but itís also not time to start heading for the basement bunkers.

In some ways we couldnít have been prepared for this, and in other ways we are doing well. Governmental response has been swift and fairly competent. International cooperation has been high. Drugs are available and being distributed to the states. But whatever the details of the current virusí genome are, in certain key ways, we could have been ready and are woefully not.

Not in any high-tech, disease research kind of way. Iím talking, of course, about paid sick days.

Everyone who is taking a non-panicked look at the swine flu question has a couple of basic recommendations: Wash your hands a lot, cover your mouth when you cough, and if youíre sick, stay home from work and see a doctor.

The former, we can do. I wish I had stock in Purell about now.

The latter? Easier said than done for many of us, unfortunately. As activist group Moms Rising points out, over half of U.S. workers donít have a single paid sick day. For workers in positions to be serious disease vectors, itís even worse: 92 percent of waiters and waitresses, and 79 percent of child care workers arenít allowed to earn any paid sick days.

Itís all well and good to think that if you know you have some dread disease you should take one for the team and take some unpaid time off to head off Global Pandemic, but we all know full well that thatís not necessarily available either, even if you could afford it. And these days, fewer and fewer people can afford it.

Besides, if you wait until youíre sure youíre really sick, as opposed to when youíre starting to come down with something, which could be a cold or The Flu or something else, itís probably too late.

Not to mention waiting to go back until youíre all the way better. Health officials told the Wall Street Journal that people with possible swine flu should stay home for 48 hours after the symptoms have passed. Good luck trying to pull that off. Although, maybe the panic will be a good thing for a few ill people who can claim that whatever they have is swine flu in order to get the rest/time off they need.

Iíd take it a step further and say sick days are essential, but by themselves not quite enough. If you have no personal days or vacation and a small handful of sick days, youíve probably already blown many of them on a mix of mental health days and urgent life crises. Donít tell me you donít know what Iím talking about. Life happens.

So it sucks to not have paid time off. Itís one of those things that activists agitate for, and it seems nice, but kind of expensive and luxurious as a policy goal, especially in economic hard times. And then something like swine flu comes along, and it suddenly becomes really important to everyone that everyone else take care of themselves.

Interesting. Itís like thereís a little break in the clouds reminding people that many of those ďbleeding heart liberalĒ policies have actually got a certain self-interested pragmatism about them. At least for the 99.9 percent of us who canít/donít want to hole up in our penthouse with black market Tamiflu and get fed sterilized meals through the dumb waiter. (And in fact, it should be noted that isolating yourself from social contact actually weakens your immune system and is generally a bad way to stay healthy in all but the worst pandemic situations.)

So will we take notice? Will we take the opportunity to make something good happen out of a swine flu outbreak? Or will we let sexy technological stuffólike vaccine development and super-duper antiviral medsóovershadow the kind of prosaic, humanitarian public health policy choices (not to mention, of course, health care reform) that could probably make a greater difference for a greater number of people in the long run?

Moms Rising has a petition calling for action to ensure paid sick days. I signed it. And now Iím going to bed. I have a long work week and I canít afford to get sick.

óMiriam Axel-Lute

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