Thursday, October 14, 2010

Swine flu redux

Viewing signs posted on grocery and drug store windows advising people to get their H1N1 flu shots while their hot reminded me of something that happened to me last spring at the airport where I work; during the height of the swine flu “pandemic,” I was asked by one of the glorified waitresses if I had the flu. Not because I was sick, you understand, but because I look like a “Mexican.” I said nothing but gave her a questioning look, to which she responded with a not very convincing “I was just joking.” The “pandemic” never happened, but the “Mexican” angle kept paranoia afloat, so much so that the Mexican press accused the American press of pandering to anti-Mexican sentiment. After the faux-pandemic, a few in the media were conjecturing about the “lessons” that were learned from this episode once reality fell like a lump of lead. There were supposed lessons in timely responsiveness to a sudden deadly outbreak of flu, and developing enough vaccine quickly and in enough quantity. But these “lessons” were already learned that during the 1975 “pandemic,” and the country forgot another lesson from that episode: about how easily people can be driven into a panic by media-driven agitation and official over-excitement. After all the initial excitement, the virus took its time to develop into a full-blown load of nothing; the vaccine eventually developed proved so effective that thinking people started to wonder what the fuss was about (in fact the swine flu virus has been deemed no more dangerous a strain than typical). Even the WHO’s irresponsible altering of its pandemic “standard” started to look suspiciously like the Bush administration’s use of terror alert status hues to fit a particular political need of the moment. 36,000 people die of complications of the flu every year in this country; only a relative handful last year could be directly traced to H1N1.

No one really knows the precise origin of the swine flu, but the American media and then the world was quick to demonize anyone who looked Mexican. Mexican nationals were quarantined by countries like China (which has peculiar notions about race; many couldn’t believe a black man was president, because they thought black people were all janitors). In this country, it was all part and parcel of the current anti-immigrant hysteria, fueled by people like Lou Dobbs and Michelle Malkin who likened “Mexicans” as disease-carrying animals. In order to spice-up the alleged “connection” the press pointed at the so-called “Spanish” influenza following WWI, perhaps to remind people of the “origin” of the current “pandemic.” Spain was actually one of the last countries that the pandemic visited; it is believed that the flu became dangerous when it infected the suppressed immune systems of soldiers who had lived in fetid conditions in the trenches, and spread when they returned home. Spain was a neutral country and had stayed out of the war. But the U.S. and other European governments and press suppressed information about the spread and strength of the flu, and it was the Spanish press that gave the lie to the official censorship—which it could hardly do otherwise, since the country’s king had taken seriously ill with it. Since Spain was the first country to acknowledge the existence of the flu, it was given the “honor” of giving its name to it.

It remains to be seen if the continued focus on the swine flu is justified, or another misguided misdirection of resources that ignores the more usual—and more usually deadlier—strains. Politics has no place when human safety is at issue—particularly when unwarranted paranoia requires the demonization of whole groups of people.

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