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GOP Know-Nothings Fought Pandemic Preparedness

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When House Appropriations Committee chairman David Obey, the Wisconsin Democrat who has long championed investment in pandemic preparation, included roughly $900 million for that purpose in this year's emergency stimulus bill, he was ridiculed by conservative operatives and congressional Republicans.

Obey and other advocates for the spending argued, correctly, that a pandemic hitting in the midst of an economic downturn could turn a recession into something far worse -- with workers ordered to remain in their homes, workplaces shuttered to avoid the spread of disease, transportation systems grinding to a halt and demand for emergency services and public health interventions skyrocketing. Indeed, they suggested, pandemic preparation was essential to any responsible plan for renewing the U.S. economy.

But former White House political czar Karl Rove and key congressional Republicans -- led by Maine Senator Susan Collins -- aggressively attacked the notion that there was a connection between pandemic preparation and economic recovery.

Now, as the World Health Organization says a deadly swine flu outbreak that apparently began in Mexico but has spread to the United States has the potential to develop into a pandemic, Obey's attempt to secure the money seems eerily prescient.

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And partisan attacks on his efforts seem not just creepy, but dangerous.

The current swine flu outbreak is not a pandemic, and there is reason to hope that it can be contained.

But it has already believed to have killed more than 100 people in a neighboring country and sickened dozens of Americans -- causing the closing of schools and other public facilities in U.S. cities.

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Dr. Anne Schuchat, the U.S Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Interim Deputy Director for Science and Public Health Program, explained to reporters on Saturday that, because the cases that have been discovered so far are so widely spread (in California, Kansas, New York, Ohio and Texas), the outbreak is already "beyond containment."

On Sunday, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano announced that a national "public health emergency" had been declared. Notably, the second question at the White House press conference on the emergency had to do with the potential impact on the economic recovery.

On Monday, the question began to be answered, as Associated Press reported -- under the headline: "World Markets Struck By Swine Flu Fears" -- that: "World stock markets fell Monday as investors worried that a deadly outbreak of swine flu in Mexico could go global and derail any global economic recovery."

Before U.S. markets opened, the Wall Street Journal reported: "U.S. stock futures fell sharply Monday as the outbreak of deadly swine flu stoked fears that a possible recovery in the global economy could be derailed."

That's unsettling.

To a great many Americans, the latest developments are genuinely scary.

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Not faked-up, politically self-serving scary, like the arguments Rove advanced in February to frame opposition to the stimulus package Obey crafted in the House.

George Bush's political manipulator dismissed Obey's proposals as "disturbing" and "laden with new spending programs." He said the congressman was peddling a plan based on "deeply flawed assumptions."

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John Nichols, a pioneering political blogger, has written the Online Beat since 1999. His posts have been circulated internationally, quoted in numerous books and mentioned in debates on the floor of Congress.

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