Swine Flu: National Irrational
Our collective reaction to the swine flue epidemic over the last few weeks tells us quite a bit about ourselves.
When the first news stories broke, a sense of an impending plague began to swell. Death—inexplicable, unstoppable, and on a scale so large that it made the loss of individual human lives virtually trivial—was headed our way. Undercurrents of panic followed. Frenzied press conferences from the CDC. Government spokespeople telling the public to remain calm. I don’t know about you but nothing makes me feel more uncomfortable than people whose sole advice is to remain calm. Remain calm? Why should I? You’re the government. You’re supposed to have all the answers. And what do you come up with? There’s no need to panic. Thanks. Next.
Secondly, everything we did to halt the spread of the virus bordered on futile or symbolic. We never closed air traffic from Mexico. Why? Because it would disrupt airline schedules. Businesses. Tourism. It would cost money. So instead, the poor Mexican citizens closed their schools, restaurants, offices, and even their churches. But we left doors to the single most dangerous source of far-reaching contamination wide open: airplanes.
Thirdly, we were inundated with stores about how soon the NIH would create a vaccine. When would it be available? In the meantime, how many millions of doses of Tamiflu would be mobilized to protect the American public from the swine flu? Fifty million? What if we all got the flu? All three hundred million of us? How would you triage out the Tamiflu? Youngest and oldest? Most likely to die? Healthiest in their prime? Most vital to national interest? Government officials and soldiers? Or taxpayers?
And then we were told wash our hands and cover our mouths when we cough. I was waiting for news reports on the latest soaps and towels being developed to aid the American citizenry in stopping this killer virus. Oh, and we closed schools as soon as a flu case was discovered forgetting that much of the contact and spread of flu had occurred long before an individual became symptomatic. Then we discovered cases unrelated to travel to Mexico so they were springing up de novo and we were no longer sure what to close.
Finally, we forgot about it. Not that many people had died from it anyway. Enhanced interrogation techniques seem more relevant. And maybe it wasn’t Black Death, losing sight of the fact that nearly 30,000 people die every year from the flu in the United States and no one starts heading into underground shelters or buying Hazmat suits. Many people stopped eating pork until officials formally changed the name of the virus to H1N1 because there was pressure on the government to help out the pork industry. Great. Still “swine flu” was the number one topic on Twitter for about four days after the name change. “H1N1” never appeared. It was kind of like changing “Wall Street” to “Trust Us Street.” It didn’t stick.
In the end, the Swine Flu episode (this is only Part I, stay tuned for the whole season) taught us that when things scare us, we get irrational (close Mexico but keep the planes flying) and desperate (let’s shut down GM and convert the company to making barrels of Swine Flu vaccine but forget that the only real remedy is handing out soap). And, finally, when something really frightens us change the name (so Swine Flue becomes H1N1 and torture becomes enhanced interrogation techniques).
The episode mirrored other steps being taken in the country, like giving billions of dollars to the companies that cheated and deceived the American public. Then we declared that imprisoning and torturing individuals is illegal, a violation of our laws, the Geneva Convention, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights established by the UN. Oh, but let’s not prosecute anyone who did it or approved of it. Let’s leave all the elected Representatives (especially the ones that lie about it) and Senators in place who let it happen. After all, either everyone didn’t know (was there anyone in the United States—in the world—who didn’t know?) or, if they did, they were just following orders (or memos, even better).
It’s been a bad couple of weeks for the American psyche. But…there’s no need to panic. Remain calm.