The Days of Swine(Flu) and Roses

swinefluThere’s nothing the media likes more than a good pandemic panic. I recall the one that swept Britain back in 1994, about necrotising fasciitis – the ‘flesh-eating bug’ that was going to make the legs of everyone in the United Kingdom fall off. Needless to say, I type this with a count of fully-functioning limbs that does not stop at three, and that’s pretty much the way these panics work. A disease gets its 15 minutes of fame, far out of proportion to the threat it poses to the general population, and then fades back to the obscurity from which it came. See also SARS, which reached Illness of the Month status in early 2003, but worldwide killed under 800 people. To put that number into perspective, that’s rather less than die each year from being struck by lightning. Anyone remember West Nile Virus? Thought not.

And so we turn to the latest candidate: swine flu, which at the start of the week, was being promoted like with all the fervour befitting the viral equivalent of Susan Boyle [who is also viral in her own way, I suppose]. Here in Arizona, we are in a state of near-panic, being on the front-lines, and right next door to the epicenter in Mexico City. Er, ok: so Mexico City is actually over 1,250 miles away from Phoenix, and we are in fact closer to Medicine Hat in Canada. But Mexico is just over the border. And all those illegals who sneak over the fence at night, as well as bringing in crime, anchor babies and leafblowers, are now also infected with something that borders on Ebola? Little wonder the talk-radio attack-dogs on the right-wing are frothing. Witness this quote, from probably the worst of them, Michael Savage, on April 24:

Make no mistake about it: Illegal aliens are the carriers of the new strain of human-swine avian flu from Mexico. If we lived in saner times, the borders would be closed immediately… Could our dear friends in the radical Islamic countries have concocted this virus and planted it in Mexico knowing that you, [Homeland Security Secretary] Janet Napolitano, would do nothing to stop the flow of human traffic from Mexico?

Now, even as someone who favours immigration controls [dammit, I went through the proper channels to get my Green Card, so have little tolerance for those who opt to ignore the law], that’s pure bullshit, and is just being used by rabble-rousers like Savage to whip up xenophobia. There are many things for which illegal immigrants can be blamed [the inability to scan FM radio without hearing mariachi music, for one], but swine flu is not one of them. It’s reminiscent of the way, in medieval Europe, Jews were blamed for the Black Death – with the resulting pogroms also conveniently canceling the money owed to them. What brought swine flu to the US was tourism, not immigration: the infected aren’t thinking about starting a new life, they would be quite happy just to hang on to the one they’ve got, thank you very much.

There is, admittedly, a good deal of truth to the idea that immigrants carry diseases, and potentially lethal ones at that. Just ask the Native Americans: a decade after HernĂ¡n Cortez arrived in Mexico, some sources estimate that the native population had been reduced, mostly through smallpox, by almost three-quarters, from 25 million to 6.5. Things were little better further North, with smallpox – whether deliberately or unconsciously – a major factor in clearing large tracts of land for colonization. Frankly, in the unlikely event that Jose and Raul are responsible for the ‘flu, it’d hardly register a tick on the Karmic Payback scale. Thus far, Montezuma’s Revenge it ain’t.

swineflu2Yes, technically, swine flu is a pandemic – since that just means an infectious disease that spreads through populations across a large region. Basically, in the modern world, just about any infectious disease will qualify, since with modern travel, the chances of any kind of quarantine being successful are slim to note. As a result, what was lurking in Kowloon Harbor on Sunday afternoon can be getting coughed up in your local pub 24 hours later. However, modern technology has also brought us much better weapons with which to fight such diseases: anti-virals such as Tamiflu and, of course, a vaccine can also be developed against the particular strain. That’s where catching this in its early stages is very helpful.

On the other hand, Vice-president Joe Biden…not so much. Here’s his quotes from the Today show on Thursday: “I would tell members of my family – and I have – I wouldn’t go anywhere in confined places now. It’s not going to Mexico, it’s you’re in a confined aircraft when one person sneezes, it goes all the way through the aircraft. That’s me. I would not be, at this point, if they had another way of transportation, suggesting they ride the subway… If you’re out in the middle of a field and someone sneezes, that’s one thing. If you’re in a closed aircraft or a closed container, a closed car, a closed classroom, it’s a different thing.” Way to maintain a sense of proportion, Biden – it’s almost enough to make you wish Sarah Palin was the Veep instead. The truth is, “deadly” and “easily transmittable” tend to be mutually exclusive, for good evolutionary reasons. It’s just not in the virus’s interest to kill the host, or do anything that stops them from being mobile and capable of spreading the disease.

Despite the basically trivial nature of the ‘pandemic’ to date, the media has been all over it, because there’s nothing they like more than generating hysteria and fear in the population. Something like, “After the break: it’s coming from Mexico, and it can kill you. We’ll be right back,” keeps people watching, in an increasingly-fragmented media world, where there is more competition for eyeballs than ever before. But, let’s be honest: what kills people in Mexico is not what kills people in the United States. Studies have conclusively shown that, there, it’s spiders, drug cartels and breathing air with the consistency and organic content of chunky salsa. Here, it’s obesity, spree killers and NASCAR accidents. And if you go into an American hospital with the belief you have swine flu, you may well die – but it’s more likely to be medical malpractice that’s to blame, rather than the virus.

Look, folks. I am a card-carrying hypochondriac. Even though I haven’t visited a doctor since graduating college in 1987, save required medicals for mortgage and Green Card purposes, I have at varying times convinced myself I am suffering from: multiple sclerosis, AIDS, diabetes, and three different kinds of cancer (skin, colon and lymph node). And I still don’t find myself in the slightest bit concerned about swine flu. Really. You people…