Archive for May 4th, 2009

Flu paranoia?

Ever have a “You-tube moment?”  That’s when you inadvertently say something really stupid, and though you may catch yourself right away and take it back, if someone had caught it on video it could be very embarrassing.   The first day in class last week, after spring break, I was joking about Swine flu and whether anyone went to Mexico for break.   What came out essentially made it sound like I was calling Mexicans “pigs,” which of course was not at all what I meant to say!  Quickly I caught myself, and so far nothing’s appeared on you-tube, so as long as no one blogs about the incident, it will be forever unknown.

That said, I have great sympathy for Joe Biden who has had a lifetime of you-tube moments, otherwise known as “gaffes.”  Biden’s latest, of course, was his claim people should avoid flying, taking subways, or being in any enclosed spot due to fears of swine flu.  (With all due respects to the pork industry, the name sticks).   I can sympathize with Biden.   In e-mails and public speaking I often talk without thinking things through, and later feel bad or embarrassed by what I said.   I therefore sympathize with those public figures picked on by the ‘gotcha’ press or political operatives who grab on to one word or speech and hang it over a politician as long as it will stick.   Humans are fallable, the you tube generation is demanding people stick to message and not enage in real give and take.  In that, Biden’s refusal to play by those rules is a welcome respite.

Still, this doesn’t look like a slip of the tongue.  Biden is giving voice to concerns a lot of people have, even if the government is officially trying to downplay the danger.  Are we on the verge of a pandemic?  Should we be scared?  Does my child have a normal flu, or could this be (queue scary music) the swine flu.

In this, I beg to differ with the Vice President.  There is no reason to avoid planes, subways or ‘confined places,’ or to be afraid.   There is reason to take precautions, but that’s only common sense.   More people die of traffic accidents each day that swine flu has killed so far.  Does that mean we should be paranoid of driving?  If we really measured the risk of getting in the car and heading out on a trip compared to risks inherent in everything else in life, we’d approach our cars with trepedation and fear of death.   Compared to tainted peanuts, bad lettuce, Chinese toys, and all those other things we shun, the risks from an afternoon drive are immense!

So the prudent thing to do is to take precautions.  Drive defensively.  Obey traffic laws (OK, everyone speeds a bit — but please, within reason given conditions).  Don’t drink, stay off the cell phones, and buckle up.  Make sure the kids are in car seats (as much as I hate the laws forcing us to do some of these, they make sense).  Then, accept the risk.  Life is risky, just ask the ghost of Natasha Richardson.   But you have to live — otherwise it’s not worth the risk.   And for those of us who don’t think one mortal material life is all we ahve, well, that provides some comfort as well.

But why do we view those exotic risks, or the danger of swine flu, as something terrifying, even while taking in stride the risk of the drive to work?  Mostly, it’s psychological.   None of us have died driving (unless ghosts read blogs), most of us haven’t been severely injured.  We see driving as something reasonably safe.  Yet we read about these other things and imagine they could happen to us.   Our imagination combines with our capacity to conflate probability and possibility, and soon every one who coughs in our face is a potential carrier of swine flu.  It isn’t rational.

OK, one might say, at this point the risk isn’t great.  But swine flu might become a pandemic.  It could kill tens of millions!  Yes, that’s true.  So we should take precautions.  But otherwise it’s pretty much out of our control.  We’re not going to stop the global economy or travel, and we certainly aren’t able to intervene in the microscopic world of genetic flu strain mutations — influenza is evolution at the speed of light.  So fear makes no sense.  There is no reason to fixate on a possibility that may rank below the chance of an asteroid hitting the earth in 2029, or catastrophe wiping out the world on December 21, 2012 (when the ancient  Mayan calendar stops).

But the media provides scary swine flu theme music and headline  stories of new or suspected cases.  It grabs readers, sells papers, and is fodder for the anti-Mexican (and no, I did not call them ‘pigs’!) xenophobia rampant in parts of the country.   It is another example of how the media manipulates our fears for their gain, and politicians jump on the bandwagen.  Michelle Bachman (R- Minnesota), for instance, pointed out that the last two swine flu scares happened under Democratic Presidents.  When it was pointed out that the 1976 outbreak  was under President Gerald Ford, a Republican, she went mum.   Oops another gotcha Youtube moment!

Whenever these things arise people overreact — the problems of bad food like tainted peanuts actually showed just how good our oversight system is, something that kills just a few people in a country of over 300 million causes intense scrutiny.  The reaction to swine flu by the government should be heartening — they are ready, and globally connected (OK, the Egyptians got a little bizarre by killing pigs — but they don’t like pigs there anyway.)

Might it become a pandemic rivaling the Spanish flu of the era right after WWI?   That’s very, very unlikely.  It is possible — sooner or later some kind of pandemic will hit — but at this point it warrants only prudent precautions and maybe checking the news now and then.  It’s actually a boring story right now; the deaths are tragic, but so are the other 36,000 deaths that come from “normal” flus each year (not to mention the traffic deaths, children killed in war, adults killed in war, rapes, and a whole host of other things that go wrong in the world).

So, with all due respects to Joe Biden, he was sending the wrong message. Obama was right: cover your mouth when you cough, stay home if you’re sick, take precautions when you travel, but otherwise live your life.   While you’re distracted by the talk show jock ranting about the Mexicans sending swine flu across the border, you may miss noticing that the guy in the other lane fell asleep at the wheel and is careening towards you.

3 Comments