Somewhere betwixt swine and swindle, we've got a flu crisis. Well, maybe not a real crisis, or even a semi-convincing phony crisis, but the government is working on it. What we have, actually, is a crisis of hysteria promoted in certain government precincts.
Swine flu, even with its scientific-sounding new name, H1N1, has only disappointed the crisis-mongers since it was identified in the spring. The virus sprang from Mexico, currently regarded as the source of everything bad or even suspicious, and it quickly jumped the Rio Grande. Then, after a fortnight in the petri dish of the mainstream media, leaped across the Atlantic.
A virus that could swim a salty ocean would certainly be enough to kill us all quicker than a federal bureaucrat could say AIDS, or SARS, bird flu, Hong Kong flu, killer tomatoes, poisoned peanut butter, global warming or strangulation by kudzu, earlier doomsday threats to the planet. By early summer, even a polite cough or an innocent sneeze was reason enough to call the undertaker to reserve a comfortable coffin. Then, probably due to media inattention, flu subsided to 11th place on one pollster's list of things Americans worry about.
This week the Commerce Department, alarmed and chagrined to see one of its concerns sink so low in public fears, put on an impressive dog-and-pony show in Washington to dispense detailed guidelines to business firms for dealing with approaching doom (or at least severe annoyance). The story made large headlines in the newspapers, and of course provided the usual fuel for high-decibel TV news noise.
The government bureaucrats, with no experience in running a business as large as a lemonade stand or a hot-dog cart, were free with expensive advice: Plans should be put in place now for "tele-working and cross-training," the secretary, Gary Locke, said. "The key is for every business to put into place on how to continue with perhaps a severely reduced work force." The government even supplies a helpful "tool kit" to instruct businesses on how to prevent disease from "drastically affecting business operations."
Though no advice is yet available for how to quiet hysteria, the government has a few hints to live by: Everybody should wash his (or her) hands frequently and cover his (or her) mouth when coughing and nose when sneezing. If that doesn't stop it, a conscientious citizen should avoid putting contaminated beans up his nose, spitting in public or putting coins in his mouth. This is the advice we pay for, so we might as well use it.
The mainstream media, which learns slowly, nevertheless seems to be making a little progress. Largely missing from the coverage this time is the obligatory morbid reminder, usually placed no lower than the second paragraph, that swine flu may, or could, or might, you never know, mutate into the Spanish flu virus that killed millions across the world in 1918. But the crucial fact, relegated as usual to the 28th paragraph (if reported at all), is that so far swine flu strikes with an unusually soft punch.
"The [swine-flu] virus has not changed at lot," a spokesman for the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases concedes. The symptoms are nearly always mild, usually milder than the symptoms of a flu with no name.
This year's swine flu is so far much less serious than the previous swine flu of 1976, when more people died in America from the vaccine than from the flu. Britain's Health Protection Agency, similar to the U.S. Public Health Service, earlier this week sent a confidential letter to 600 British neurologists warning that the new swine flu vaccine may be linked to Guillain-Barre syndrome, which attacks the lining of the brain, causing paralysis and inability to breathe, and is sometimes fatal. A similar vaccine in 1976 was withdrawn by U.S. health authorities after several patients died.
Our British cousins are ahead of us this time, both in attention paid to the flu and in succumbing to hysteria. To avoid overwhelming the National Health Service, which offers "free" medicine to anyone willing to get in line and is held up as a model of "the public option," is offering mostly diagnosis by telephone.
Sarah Standing, a columnist for the London Spectator, writes of her 19-year-old daughter's bout of not-so-bad swine flu. After a telephone diagnosis, "we were firmly instructed not to bring her anywhere near [the doctor's office], and my husband - her designated 'flu friend' - was sent scurrying off to Boots to pick up a prescription."
Forty-eight hours later, the flu had disappeared. But not the government hysteria, for which there is no known cure.