Pandemic pandemonium: pass the paracetamol

Is that swine flu, would you say, or swine flew? Last Monday I collected the child from school, as you do, fully equipped with clothes change, chilled water and a snack, ready to warp-speed her off to if-it's-Monday-it-must-be-drama. But the child wouldn't eat, would barely drink, was shivering and had a headache so bad we canned drama, which she adores, and laid her out instead under five doonas and a snoring Burmese cat.

"I think I've got swine flu," was her only utterance which I, ever the devoted mother, ignored.

By Wednesday, medicated by bed, paracetamol and high-rise stacks of Asterix comics, she was clearly on the mend. Then the email arrived.

It was from school, two attachments. One, from that well-known health authority the NSW Education Department, bore the familiar injunction about kids returning from overseas needing a further week off school. The other was more specific, advising that a child from our school was recently in a situation where there had been community or school transmission of influenza and that "if your child is feeling unwell with any flu-like symptoms take them to emergency or ring your GP".

Sigh. I'm on deadline, and seven hours in casualty, crammed with people who probably really do have swine flu, isn't what I need. She's clearly not dying, so it's not about my child's health, it's about community responsibility. H1N109 is, after all, a notifiable disease, and we're talking pandemic, right? So I feel I should do, well, something.

I call the GP, explain the situation, thinking they'd have been briefed, have some decision-tree pinned by the phone. After all, I can hardly be the first to make such a call.

"I dunno" was the essence of it.

I read the email, aloud.

Uh, maybe call emergency?

"Will they," I ask, "be able to test for it on the spot?" I'm wondering how I'll know to keep her home for a week before it's all over.

"Yes, they'll take a swab."

"But that'll take a week to, like, fruit, right? Or is there an instant test?"

"Uh, yes, I think there's an instant test. Why don't you call emergency? Bye."

Anyone who has experienced hospital knows it's a brave thing to put the words "instant" and "emergency" in the same paragraph. But, still in the spirit of community service, I call the Children's Hospital emergency number. The receptionist sounds entirely nonplussed like, why call us? and gives me the Swine Flu Hotline.

As it happens, I've recently heard an excellent Richard Aedy interview on the rollout (such a confident image, that, like kicking a broadloom carpet out across the country) of the national HealthDirect hotline. Every phone-in, I now recall, will be triaged remotely by a registered nurse who, fully Google-mapped with their closest medical service, will instruct them in that direction, or not. That's the theory.

So it is with a warm sense of our starched and bosomy health system that I dial the Swine Flu Hotline.

"Uh, we're really a general information service," says the disembodied voice. "What's your postcode?"

I, always a sucker for a total non-sequitur, tell her it's Redfern, 2016.

Silence.

I add, helpfully, "I know my nearest hospital."

"Uh, you anywhere near Liverpool?" she says finally.

Fighting the urge to quip, "Is that Liverpool, Sydney or Liverpool, England?", I answer, "No, not really. But I do know the nearest hospital. It's Randwick. Or possibly Camperdown. Or I suppose St Vinnies. Or Sydney City."

"You near Parramatta then?"

"Uh, no. We're five minutes from Central, as in station."

"Well, we're really a general information service for the public."

The tone is peremptory, but I'm not ready for that.

"Isn't there some responsibility to report this disease? How can you know if it's a pandemic without some protocol for diagnosing and recording cases?"

"We're a general information line. You should probably call the local emergency."

"Yes, thank you. I've done that. They said to call you."

"Or you could try Health NSW. I could give you their number."

This strikes me as an unlikely remedy so I decline, politely, and call the school. "Is this serious," I ask? "Does someone actually have swine flu? A child in my daughter's class? Someone she knows?"

"I'm sorry, I know that but I can't tell you for privacy reasons."

I do not swear or tear my hair but reflect wistfully that thus is apathy forced upon us. I am close to giving up, but my curiosity is piqued and there's one more call to make. It becomes half a dozen but eventually yields the information that yes, there is an "instant test" for H1N109. It takes a few hours, not a few days, and it's available at Prince of Wales and Westmead.

So that's something. But it does not allay my sense that, however expertly the nanny state may stamp out both personal responsibility and cultural pizazz, any time you really need her, nanny's out to lunch.

Meanwhile, reports are incoming that a new human flu virus in pigs causes strange feathered irruptions on their shoulders.

This first appeared in The Sydney Morning Herald.