Sunday, May 3, 2009

Pandemic post-mortem

You would think - and hope - that with more access to information that ever before, we (as in residents of the whole flipping world) would be able to sort out what's what faster than ever.

In fact, I remember in college (not long ago) a discussion of a specific media criticism that posited that mass media - the FEW choices we had - made us, as a population, susceptible to manipulation. In other words, if the major TV networks all decide something is an issue, it makes all of us think about the issue more, for better or for worse.

This criticism suggested that having more options would allow us to be able to parse out the "reality" of a situation and have more access to information... ending in a better understanding of a given situation or issue.

After the swine flu debacle in the past week, I think we can all say that either that media criticism is wrong, or we are likely to be the most overreactive population in history.

If you followed the swine flu news, we went from zero to "full on apocalyptic panic!" in about two days. Schools closing! People altering travel plans! Calls to close the Mexican border! Quarantines!

The only pandemic that materialized in that time frame was one of panic and overthinking. Fueled by every analyst and his sister speculating on what could potentially happen, we started thinking that anyone with a sneeze was about to kill off a family or two with this "deadly" flu.

No one stopped to think that all the deaths in Mexico... happened in MEXICO. Mexico is many things. Certainly it is not what the stereotype of it is, but... is it any surprise that people in a country that has areas still plagued by bad water died of a case of the flu? Yet the media treated those deaths like a bunch of triathletes from Norway died.

Today, according to this story, 787 people worldwide are sick with swine flu. In other words, 0.0000117% of the world's population is sick. For reference, about 0.4% of the world has AIDS.

Granted, wearing a condom won't prevent flu, but still... we're flipping out because fewer than 800 people have swine flu, but 33 million with AIDS is la-di-da.

We should be ashamed. We have run up the panic flag while the World Health Organization took it's time and now reports that this might all be no worse than the normal flu, which the WHO notes kills 250,000-500,000 people every year anyway!

So, I am going to continue my normal handwashing routine. I am going to dare to scratch my eye or blow my nose moments after touching my computer keyboard. And you know what? If I get sick, I'm going to take care of myself. I'll go to the doctor if I need. Crazy stuff.

And the next time a "pandemic" threatens us, I'm going to wait until it strikes to get nuts.

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