Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Nothing to Fear but Fear Itself

by Michelle Gagnon pig

For the past few weeks I’ve been recovering from a cold. It was a nasty one- I rarely get sick, but when something manages to overcome my immune system, it’s generally a humdinger. On Monday night I was out to dinner with friends, still coughing.

At the first wheeze, the woman sitting next to me paled and slid away. “Have you been checked yet?”

“For what?” I asked innocently (I should clarify: I’ve been on a bit of a news blackout for the past few weeks. Between being ill and dealing with page proofs, current affairs fell by the wayside).

“Swine flu,” she said.

Now everyone slid a few inches away. I’d seen a headline about swine flu, guffawed at the bizarre name, and promptly forgot all about it. “It’s coming from Mexico, right? I haven’t been to Mexico.”

“Oh, it’s here now. Cases in Marin, the South Bay.”

“I heard they closed the airports overseas,” another friend interrupted. “A friend of mine was trying to fly out for their honeymoon, and the entire E.U. is refusing planes from the United States.”

“Really?” I said. At first, this had seemed funny. But now I was overly aware of the constant tickle in my throat. “But I’m not sick anymore, so even if I had it, it’s gone now, right?”

“Walking pneumonia.” My friend said solemnly. “You seem fine, then in a week you’re dead.”

And it’s killing healthy people our age,” another friend agreed. “They’re saying it could be the next Spanish flu.”

Now as you can imagine, all of this was very disconcerting. The SARS scare and avian flu had barely been blips on my radar: probably because at the time, I hadn’t been ill (and let’s be honest: avian flu sounds bad, but “swine flu” sounds positively vile, like you might suddenly sprout a snout).

Living in California, we’re frequently told that we’re ground zero for potential pandemics thanks to constant traffic from Mexico and Asia. But despite that, I always blithely assumed that me and mine would remain unaffected.

The mention of Spanish flu put it in a whole different league for me, however. My grandmother lost two siblings during that pandemic, and to her dying day discussed it in hushed tones.

So I ended up leaving dinner, heading home and going online to read everything I could about swine flu.

Good news: half of what was discussed at dinner was not true. Flights from the U.S. to Europe are continuing without pause (although a flight from Mexico to London resulted in all passengers being examined). Not only that, but U.S. citizens aren’t even being told to change travel plans to Mexico.

The whole incident got me thinking about fear, however, and the ways we sow panic amongst ourselves. 14 swine flu cases have been confirmed in the U.S. as of the time I’m writing this, with one fatality. The normal, run-of-the-mill flu kills about 36,000 Americans a year. So why this fear? Does the media create it to fill air time and drive up ratings? Why is the mere mention of a “pandemic” enough to send us heading for the hills? Some of my friends are debating keeping their children out of school. A local parent sent out an email detailing how we should be washing our produce in a diluted vinegar/bleach solution. One friend has even considered dropping everything and going to a relatively unpopulated area until sometime after May 6th, when apparently if all goes well, the worst of the danger will have passed.

Recently Philip Alcabes, the author of a book entitled, “Dread: How Fear and Fantasy have Fueled Epidemics,” was a guest on The Daily Show. He claimed that most of the threats we get all worked up over are meaningless in comparison to the much more real daily dangers we face. For example, in San Francisco it’s statistically far more likely that I’ll be hit by a car than die of swine flu (it’s not a great city for pedestrians. We’re working on it, but if you visit, look both ways before crossing the street. Even on one-way streets. Seriously.) Getting hit be a car doesn’t sound as scary as swine flu, though, does it?

So I made an appointment with the doctor to get checked out (if nothing else, this cough is driving me crazy). Fingers crossed, I won’t grow a snout.

So what do you think? Much ado about nothing, or should we head for the hills?

Coming up on our Kill Zone Guest Sundays, watch for blogs from Sandra Brown, Steve Berry, Robert Liparulo, Paul Kemprecos, Linda Fairstein, Oline Cogdill, James Scott Bell, and more.


  1. As Americans, we are so inundated with "hot" news stories, fear, paranoia, conspiracy and the like--I couldn't function if I worried about all the things we're told to worry about. Even if it were the most destructive and fatal pandemic the world has ever known, I still cannot live in fear. I did snort a line of dandruff from a hog's matted back shag, but I still feel OK:)

  2. I sent Leonard forward in the time machine to check out swine flu. He came back and said unequivocally that he saw no people with snouts...although he had to look twice at this one guy standing in front of a Mega-Burger-Buster "Home of the Gallon Shake".

    Honestly we do let the media carry us too far. If you're going to get sick, you're going to get sick. No matter where you run. It's destiny.

    My mentor long ago once told me of an oil field incident in Oklahoma back in the fifties. Around the tall oil rigs were these metal roofed safety shacks with open doors at the front and back for quick access. If someone dropped a tool from the top of one of the couple hundred foot high rigs he'd holler out and all the workers would run to the nearest safety shed.
    Well a fellow drops a big wrench from near the top. As it clangs down the metal structure he screams out "COVER!" and everyone runs for cover. One dude runs into a safety shack and passes right through it and heads on out the back door and keeps running. He gets about thirty steps away and that wrench slams into the roof of the shed careens off and flies parallel to the ground until it stops upon contact with the back of running man's skull, right under the lip of his helmet. He falls down, dead before he hit the ground.

    When it's your turn, you can run but you'll just die tired.

  3. Oh, and I nearly forgot the rest of what I wanted to say...

    I live in the hills that many would consider running to.

    Don't run here if you're sick....we're armed.

  4. Don't come to Australia. You will be scanned and probably sent to quarantine. Not kidding.

  5. Australia's fine. No panic here.

    The media feeds perception. If only they would report more car accidents causing death. I reckon one month's worth of car accidents in most countries will be higher than the unfortunate loss of life caused by the Swine Flu.


  6. Dear Michelle,

    As a friend of Philip Alcabes, I suspect he is sad that anyone has died. But I hope he is pleased that his basic points of DREAD are being illustrated. He has a good blog about this at his web site

  7. When Lynn Sholes and I wrote THE 731 LEGACY, a thriller about a terrorist-generated global pandemic, one of our technical consultants was the senior scientific adviser for the CDC. Some of the things I learned doing that research makes me realize that the Swine Flu threat could turn into a real crisis if it grows out of control. Just as in our book, the real threat is not necessarily from the disease itself but from the possible panic and chaos it can cause. The bad guys in our novel (North Korea) counted on the panic, not the deaths, to cause the global infrastructure to collapse. By disrupting normal life such as travel, commerce, and communications, a target nation can be defeated without firing a shot.

    Even though this current, real-life threat is probably a work of nature and not state-sponsored terrorism, it can create similar results, not measured in deaths but in disruption of the flow of goods and services, and the ability of local, state and national governments to manage and keep order. And to make matters more difficult, this variant of Swine Flu is a "new" strain of the flu virus and as yet there is no known cure (although there are 2 successful treatments available). Despite the fact that many die each year in this country due to the common flu, the 1918 Spanish Flu killed an estimated 100 million people worldwide. If nothing else, we should all at least stay vigilant and use common sense. And if you do head for the hills, grab a copy of THE 731 LEGACY on your way. It'll scare you enough that you won't have to watch the news.

  8. I think the media is happy to have something besides the economy and celebutantes to report on. There was a swine flu epidemic back in the 70s and we're all still here.

    It's ridiculous. Why aren't they telling people that all they need to do is have their doctor prescribe Tamiflu if they have symptoms? I've only heard one expert even mention that on the news. No, they'd rather have people panic and drive up their ratings.

  9. Ok, so far the tally appears to be:

    Much ado about nothing: 5

    Head for the hills: 2

    Don't come here: 2
    (Too late Basil, I'm on your doorstep. Don't shoot! And Bobby, I'm never letting you spend time alone with my pigs...)

  10. I'm trying to bury my head in the sand so I avoid being in any category. I was being pretty cool about it all until I realized that today I'm going tothe INS office to be fingerprinted...great, love going to where all us immigrants are! Hopefully no one there has just returned from Mexico!
    Is say worry about the things you can control and don't watch TV news...

  11. I still have vivid memories of the Hong Kong flu of the 1960's. I never hear that outbreak mentioned in the news reports, so maybe that one wasn't considered a serious "pandemic," but ohmigosh, everyone got deathly ill. In the current outbreak of swine flu, I wouldn't be too reassured by the fact that everything seems to be functioning "normally" in terms of travel. The U.S. won't organize any effective response until it's too late. We're lagging behind the EU and the WHO at this point. Our public health care system is deplorable. It will be up to us, as the president stressed yesterday, to wash our own hands and stay out of school.

  12. I came down with something wicked right around LCC, @ the beginning of March. Like you, I seldom get sick but this time the crud held on for weeks and weeks. (And it didn't help that his nibs and I seemed to be infecting and re-infecting each other.)

    I seem to be finally over it as of a week or so ago. I am thanking my stars that I'm not still having body-shaking coughs because, as you found out, everyone gives you advice, slithers away from you, and treats you like Typhoid Mary.

    Sometimes a cold/flu is just cold/flu and you certainly don't want to spread it around, but I couldn't have quarantined myself for six weeks either.

    I'm glad the CDC and WHO and all are keeping a handle on things BUT you have the authorities in Egypt killing every single pig in the country. What? You have USAn politicians calling for a complete ban on ALL cross-border traffic with Mexico. What? You have people hauling their kids out of school and TSA employees complaining that their bosses won't let them wear facemasks at work.

    *sigh* If we did have a time machine and could check two years down the road and come back and say, "No reason to fear. Chill." wouldn't life be easier?

  13. Regardless of what the regular media says things are always not what they seem. Here's a bit of news from my favourite analysis site:

    STRATFOR: SWINE FLU UPDATE(reprinted with permission)The United States confirmed its first swine flu death with a 23-month-old toddler in Texas on April 29. Officials have confirmed that the virus has infected more people in North America, Europe and Asia. Yet the seriousness of the issue may have actually decreased in the past few hours.

    Mexico’s casualty figures on the issue have been maddeningly inconsistent. As of two days ago, the Mexican Health Ministry reported over 150 deaths believed to be related to the swine flu. But only 20 of those deaths had been confirmed to be flu-related, and on April 29 that number was revised down to only seven. There is still a lack of information regarding the particulars about this new pathogen; but if it has killed only seven people after two months of spreading in a country with somewhat limited health care services, perhaps its virulence is not so harsh after all, even if its communicability is impressive. Bear in mind that every year 36,000 Americans are killed by “normal” flu strains — a figure that averages out to 100 a day.

    There is, of course, the possibility that Mexico’s record keeping is not up to snuff, and we do not intend for that statement to denigrate Mexican capabilities. Mexico City health authorities are at the epicenter of the outbreak. Their primary concerns at this point are triage and mitigation, not accurate data recording. Information flow in the early stages of an outbreak is sketchy, no matter where it occurs, and Mexico is no exception. But as time progresses, the fog of uncertainty appears to be lifting somewhat.

    As normal, STRATFOR will defer to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on the technical particulars, but this is looking more and more like a “normal” flu strain. Of course, we are still left with a question that implies this is not all over just yet. There are still several dozen people in Mexico City who died of pneumonia. If it was not caused by swine flu, what actually killed them?

    This analysis was just a fraction of what our Members enjoy, to start your Free Membership Trial Today!

  14. Of course, on the other side of the issue according to Foxnews:

    Mexico’s president told citizens on Wednesday to stay home for a five-day partial shutdown of the economy, after the World Health Organization raised its alert level and said a swine flu pandemic was imminent.

    In his first televised address since the crisis erupted last week, President Felipe Calderon told Mexicans to stay home with their families. The country will suspend non-essential work and services, including some government ministries, from May 1-5.

    “There is no safer place than your own home to avoid being infected with the flu virus,” Calderon said.

    Mexico is taking the drastic step after another 17 deaths were potentially linked to swine flu, bringing the total to as many as 176.

    Essential services such as transport, supermarkets, trash collection and hospitals will remain open.

  15. I say it's nothing worthy of panic in the streets, but if people will buy duct tape as a safety measure in a post 9/11 world, then I take nothing for granted from the collective intellect anymore.

    I've said it since the start: You can't catch Swine Flu from a Wendy's Baconator, so chill out, people.

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