May 6, 2009

Calm before the swine

Posted in Global discourse tagged , , , , at 9:59 am by Maggie Clark

There is reason to think positively about the strength of citizens en masse. There is reason, too, to think positively about the benefits of our new networking technologies. And one need look no farther for proof of this than the confrontation between panic and perspective in relation to the swine flu epidemic.

Swine flu had, and still has, all the earmarks for a perfect shock story: The strain, H1N1, afflicts the healthy, the strong, by over-stimulating the immune system’s response. It’s an inter-species mutant, so you can imagine the inference that it must surely be three times as strong as its avian, human, and swine strain predecessors. And the outbreak has been tied to Mexico — just one more illegal immigrant to worry about, right? (It’s even being called the “killer Mexican flu” in some circles.)

As I write this, according to the Canadian Public Health Agency, there are 165 reported cases of this H1NI strain in humans in Canada. The U.S. claims 403 cases, and between the two of us we have exactly two confirmed deaths. According to WHO statistics (current to May 5) Mexico has 822 cases, with 29 deaths; in the whole world, 21 countries share a collective case count of 1,490, with no other confirmed deaths.

If scientists declare that the strain has established itself outside of North America, the flu will reach pandemic status. In theory, that sounds terrifying, but really, the meaning extends no further than the fact that the illness can be found across the globe. The term pandemic says nothing, for instance, about how lethal or non-lethal said condition is; and though some sources are fond of speculating worst case scenarios, this means that the death rate is still very low. How low? Let’s take the U.S. numbers to illustrate: Annually, there are some 200,000 cases of hospitalization due to typical flu types in the U.S. — and 36,000 deaths. By this measure, swine flu has a long way to go before being anywhere near as serious a threat as its local, home-grown competitors.

And yet all this, for me, isn’t where it gets interesting. Not even close. Rather, what continues to surprise and impress me is our capacity for self-regulated response to the initial panic invoked around this illness. Yes, the media was talking up a storm about Influenza A H1N1. Yes, doomsday speculation was abounding. And yes, many industries — sanitation and pharmaceutical groups especially — have profited greatly in terms of market shares and business from all this panic.

But also abounding was — and still is — a countering force of calm. And it takes some truly extraordinary forms: For instance, mainstream news articles taking other articles to task for the lack of coverage about all the good news we have about Influenza A H1N1, and ethical deliberations about whether or not laughing at this illness (its name, its origins) is acceptable. And then there’s the really fun stuff: Stephan Zielinski applying the amino acid sequence for Influenza A H1N1 to ambient music. Gizmodo posting a hauntingly beautiful video demonstration of how the virus gets released. xkcd.com aptly encompassing the typical range of responses to Swine Flu on Twitter.

In other words, for all the panic we’ve had thrown at us about this illness, many have responded with a measure of fearlessness at least a hundred times as infectious. Does this mean everyone is rid of that panic? No, of course not: these reactive trends are often regional and compartmentalized due to varying interests and complex investments. The mass killing of all pig herds in Egypt, for instance — a perfectly rational response to a disease that, at that time, had no cases of pig-to-human infection manifested in the world, and absolutely no cases of human infection in the country itself — leaves huge consequences for the pig farmers, who with 300,000 animals killed have lashed back at the government in the form of protests: doubtless this panic attack on the part of officials will leave a long list of social consequences in its wake.

But think back, for comparison’s sake, to our global reaction to SARS — the extreme panic, the devaluation of tourism in heavily affected cities and regions, the dramatic quarantining procedures. Globally, the disease racked up 8273 cases, with 775 direct deaths (a death rate of 9.6 percent, weighted heavily toward seniors). Though clearly a more serious disease than Influenza A H1N1, the overall death rate of Americans due to seasonal influenza was still much higher; and yet our panic was long-standing and far-reaching, in large part because we were given no room for questions of doubt: only more panic.

Similarly, I’m not convinced the relative calm in this case emerged from the ground up: rather, I suspect news articles first had to present seeds of doubt about this issue, as forwarded by scientists reacting to the extent of media spin. I think room for doubt had to emerge from these sources first; and then the average reader, artist, and blogger could follow after — in turn serving to create more room to maneouver, rhetoric-wise, in future works by the mainstream media. But regardless of speculation about just how, and in what order, these groups fed off each other — the scientists, the media, and the participatory citizenry as a whole — what’s more striking is that they fed off each other at all to produce this ultimately calming effect.

We have, in the last 8 years, kicked ourselves over and over again for allowing flimsy excuses for war-mongering to stand; for allowing freedoms to be stripped from us in the name of security; for permitting, in general, the hard polemics of with-us-or-against-us to divide the population. And rightly so: When we go along with fear-mongering, we can be, en masse, pathetic excuses for an advanced and critically thinking civilization.

But cases like our reaction to swine flu should likewise give us cause for hope — and should be treated as such, with praise for measured response wherever it emerges. For as much as we can act like sheep if treated like sheep, it nonetheless takes precious little in the way of tempered social rhetoric for us to realize our own, independent engagements — fearless, inquisitive, and inspired alike — with the world instead.

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