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Willing, not ready for flu outbreak

Healthworker wearing mask

TEXT OF INTERVIEW

KAI RYSSDAL:Public health experts were in Washington today talking about a global outbreak of flu. Whether it's bird flu or a repeat of the 1918 pandemic, a new study says most American would be willing to abide by what the government tells us to do to stop spreading the disease. To a point. Harvard University's Robert Blendon did the survey. Professor Blendon, welcome to the program.

ROBERT BLENDON: Thank you very much for having me.

RYSSDAL: I suppose the good news out of your research is that most people are willing to cooperate if a pandemic flu happens.

BLENDON:That was very exciting for us when we presented people a situation where there could be a really major epidemic, they basically said they would be willing to cooperate, make major changes in their lives for a period of time and all-around avoiding contacts with other people: air travel, public events, malls. Even staying at home for a week if people said it's the only way to stop getting infected. That is really the positive side. And then there were just a lot of very practical problems that when you talk to people they raised that need to be solved by both businesses, governments and community organizations.

RYSSDAL: It's all well and good if you can stay home from work if you have to for a week, maybe ten days, not such a big deal. But if the authorities start saying you need not go to work for a month, or 3 months, you start running out of money.

BLENDON:Everybody in government and business has to come to grips with this: that we ask employed people if they would have serious financial problems if they stayed out of work for a month. Well 57 percent said they'd be in real trouble in a month. And in 3 months it's 76 percent. Even at a week—seven to ten-days—one in four people who are employed, they can't make it, they're living paycheck to paycheck. Telling them to stay at home is going to cause a terrible financial problem. We have to start thinking about how do we deal with people if they're not going to be able to get a paycheck. And whether employers are gonna be in any position to help them out. Because most of the people that we interviewed were not sure if their employers would give them any pay if they had to stay out because the epidemic was in their community, and health officials were saying, don't going to work.

RYSSDAL: I was struck by that: how few people are aware of what the employer plans are. Whether it's: we're going to close for a week, you will be paid. Whether: we're done for a month, you won't be paid. Nobody had any idea.

BLENDON:Absolutely right. There may be a lot of industry-wide planning groups but it hasn't filtered down to where people work. There really is a need for these employer groups to really work through this, stage by stage, about what would be asked of their employees and what they could do for them in these very difficult periods when this sort of very extensive flu would be sweeping through your community.

RYSSDAL: You discover that people are willing to stay home from the mall, and keep the kids home from school, and not go to church. Workplace cooperation though had the lowest rate of approval. Mostly because I imagine we're worried about running out of money.

BLENDON:Absolutely. Thirty-five percent of people who are working said, "Look I have to go to work. This isn't going to work out for me." So the workplace issues are there. What we found, no surprises, lower wage workers have more problems here, people in service industries and everything else. They can't sit around for a couple weeks with no checks coming in. And if we can't figure out some way to help them, they're gonna be desperate and looking for some place to work, and possibly infect themselves or someone else. So we really have to figure out some way for this period of time to sort of make people whole so they can work their way through this, or it could be a very serious problem.

RYSSDAL: Robert Blendon's a professor of health policy and political analysis at the Harvard School of Public Health.

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, public radio’s program on business and the economy.

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