Wednesday, October 8, 2014

When two and two equals whatever you want it to be

Last week the Seattle Times reported on its front page news of an alleged E. coli outbreak in the water supply of Mercer Island, in western Washington. In the days since, there has been very little evidence of it, but of course it is better to be “safe” than “sorry,” so a boil water advisory remained in effect. 

What I found “interesting” about the Times’ story was not the printed part, but the accompanying photograph of the manager of a restaurant that was one of many closed for business until the “scare” passed. Why—out of all of the restaurants on the island, did it choose one in this largely white community who looked like, well, a “Mexican”? Maybe his name wasn’t Spanish, or the business’s name “Roberto’s” could be “Italian,” given that it was supposedly a pizza shop, but some people have a “funny way” of equating an image with preconceived notions. Of course, since E.coli is most commonly associated with diarrhea, it just might be a kind crude “joke.” 

Back in 2009 during the swine flu “epidemic” that allegedly (but no proof of) originated in Mexico, right-wing commentators were besides themselves with accusations against “disease-carrying” immigrants, one of the favorite talking points of anchor-baby Filipino-American Michelle Malkin. Racist extremist radio host Michael (Weiner) Savage told his listeners “No contact anywhere with an illegal alien! And that starts in the restaurants—you don’t know if they wipe their behinds with their hands!” Savage even suggested that Mexicans were being sent into the country by terrorists as “biological weapons.” Although Savage claimed to be referring only to “illegal aliens”—of whom he did not want anywhere near him—how was he going to tell the “difference” between someone who was illegal or not? How does anyone?

I recall an incident back then when I was working at the airport. I walked up the gate to do something, and a flight attendant asked me if I had the “flu.” I wasn’t sick, or looked sick, or coughing or any of that. It was just my “ethnicity” that she was responding to. I gave her a cold look, which she responded to by saying “I was just joking.” Sure. I can tell you that it didn’t matter to her if I was “illegal” or not. As Jim Dwyer noted in an op-ed in the New York Times, he was “shocked” by the number of people who told him they “feared” to be around “Mexicans” because they might be carrying the flu. It doesn’t matter to the willfully uniformed that the H1N1 strain in 2009 was much less deadly that the H3N2 some years earlier, because that one didn’t have the racial paranoia factor going for it. Not surprisingly, the recent unaccompanied children scare brought with them the who knows what fantasia of frightening diseases, according to many in media (and not just the right-wing variety).

It turned out that the “epidemic” was much less than advertised, and that the “carriers” of the disease into the U.S. were not Mexicans—illegal or not—but your average everyday American who probably didn’t take the proper “precautions” when traveling to some resort. While recent reports claim that the initial estimates of the death toll in 2009 were “low”—insofar as the number of deaths in Asia and particularly Africa were not properly “calculated” — those numbers are still wildly varying, anywhere from 100,000 to 575,000 and thus subject to question. 

Not only that, but some in the medical establishment believe that “official” estimates of flu deaths in general are wildly exaggerated, and “a mess.” The British Medical Journal even called U.S. estimates of flu deaths nothing more than a “public relations” tool: “The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) acknowledges a difference between flu death and flu associated death yet uses the terms interchangeably. Additionally, there are significant statistical incompatibilities between official estimates and national vital statistics data. Compounding these problems is a marketing of fear—a CDC communications strategy in which medical experts ‘predict dire outcomes’ during flu seasons.”

The journal accused the CDC of “bundling” flu and pneumonia deaths into one statistic: The CDC “states what has become commonly accepted and widely reported in the lay and scientific press: annually ‘about 36,000 [Americans] die from flu’ and ‘influenza/pneumonia’ and is the seventh leading cause of death in the United States. But why are flu and pneumonia bundled together? Is the relationship so strong or unique to warrant characterizing them as a single cause of death?” It was revealed that most people don’t actually die from the flu virus itself, but from secondary pneumonia—and not even “viral” pneumonia. 

Earlier this year in the Huffington Post, Lawrence Solomon wrote “The CDC unabashedly decided to create a mass market for the flu vaccine by enlisting the media into panicking the public. An obedient and unquestioning media obliged by hyping the numbers, and 10 years later it is obliging still.” Not only that, but “The CDC's decision to play up flu deaths dates back a decade, when it realized the public wasn't following its advice on the flu vaccine.” During the 2003 flu season, drug companies were complaining that they were not getting enough orders for flu vaccines, and the CDC decided that it needed to hype the “danger” and inflate the numbers because, according to one CDC insider, "It really did look like we needed to do something to encourage people to get a flu shot."

And of course, how better to do it than remind people that they need to stay away from certain people, as pictured in that Times story.

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