Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Watching the swine flu circus from Mexico

ARROYO SECO, Jalisco, Mexico - The day the story broke about the outbreak of swine flu in Mexico City, news media immediately began using the word 'pandemic.'

It is a powerful word, laden with frightening implications, especially as it is usually pronounced in television broadcasts with the same gravity as saying 'nuclear war.' In this case, certainly four days ago, it was also a wild overstatement. I trust it is still an overstatement as you read this. But it did keep people glued to television sets - and advertisers smiling.

Here on the west coast of Mexico, in the very southern portion of the subtropical state of Jalisco, children are out of school and playing in the streets (part of the nationwide alert and school closures). People who have coughs are seeking doctors, when they might not have otherwise. Pigs are eyed somewhat suspiciously, though not avoided. But because there are very few televisions in the village, life simply continues without CNN's Wolf Blitzer's bulletins reporting, well, not that much.

Whaddya you lookin' at
I'm innocent, I tell you! I'm innocent!

This is not to diminish the genuine concerns people have about their health, and the health of their families and friends. But the hammering away on 24-hour news channels by hyperventilating newscasters (with non-news flu updates) isn't helping.

Washing your hands more often might, especially after handling money.

The swine flu presents a health threat, certainly. So do a plethora of other communicable diseases all over the globe, currently dormant. Read Richard Preston's book The Hot Zone for a terrifying look at how close the world came to have a major outbreak of ebola nearly 30 years ago. (You can watch the movie based on his book titled Outbreak, though the film is not as compelling.)

  • The Hot Zone excerpt

  • But there is another threat to be aware of in all this, the threat posed by fearful people. How many cases of swine flu will it take before some zealots carrying highpowered rifles on the U.S. Mexico border decide that anyone trying to cross in the U.S. poses a clear and present danger to them - and their families?

    In Sacramento, Calif., three school-aged children have been diagnosed with the flu, though their cases appear to be, well, simply a flu and not in any way life threatening. But there is likely a lot of free-floating anxiety around St. Mel's school and it's hard to say whether the first child diagnosed will become a pariah to his classmates when he recovers and school reopens.

    Let's hope not.

    Let's also hope that this swine flu burns itself out quickly - as many viruses do - and that we don't have hear the word pandemic mispronounced again for a long time.

    Now please go wash you hands. Who knows who might have been using your computer keyboard?


    1. It's a circus, all right. the really sad part is watching otherwise intelligent people get sucked into the hype. It leaves me shaking my head - and washing my hands more often.

    2. Lolz. What we we do if we didn't have cable television to tell us what to panic about this week?