OFF THE GRID

The Swine Flu Crisis Is Now Over—or Will Be

May 1, 09 | 7:53 AM   byMichael Wolff
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As the WHO raises its warning to just this side of official pandemic, and Joe Biden tells his family to avoid confined spaces, the backlash is also setting in. The LA Times reports that scientists are already beginning to relax and that the swine flu (aka H1N1) may be a lot less menacing than the plain old flu. And the pork industry is striking back, worrying that it will become as tainted as, well, Mexico.

There is, too, an overnight growth in swine conspiracy theories: e.g. Mexican drug cartels and al-Qaeda have combined their vaunted scientific expertise to manufacture the virus.

The conspiracy theories might better be directed at the hysteria rather than the virus. Who, in other words, is responsible for the outbreak of alarm and panic and media exhortations?

Who, in addition to relentless and shameless cable networks, would be WHO, which has been taking a "when, not if" view of the inevitability of pandemics for some time. WHO has been arguing that, given levels of worldwide travel, infectious diseases will spread faster and wider. The problem with this argument is that, in 50 years of mass travel, infectious diseases have decreased. What’s more, infectious disease spread fast and wide well before airplanes transported them.


(AP Photo)

The threat of a modern flu pandemic uses 1918 as the benchmark and, by implication, equates pandemic with the worldwide death of millions. Philip Alcabes, the author of Dread: How Fear and Fantasy Have Fueled Epidemics From the Black Death to Avian Flu, pointed out a month ago in the Washington Post that there have only been two flu pandemics since 1918—one in 1957, one in 1968, with, in both cases, deaths being no greater in the US than from ordinary seasonal flu. That, in itself, is of course not nothing—if you attach the word pandemic to the 20,000-30,000 yearly flu deaths, ordinary levels of mortality start to feel like a crisis.

The media brouhaha perhaps comes from good intentions: If the world is put on guard people will avoid confined spaces and governments will jump into action. Alcabes points out, however, that a swine flu scare in 1976, in which one solider died, spiraled into crisis warnings and resulted in an initiative wherein 45 million Americans were vaccinated, causing, in turn, an outbreak of Guillain-Barr syndrome, which cost the government million of dollars in wrongful death claims—with no ensuing swine flu epidemic.

Not surprisingly, the panic, or idea that there should be a panic, is tied to borders (Joe Biden wants his family to stay out of confined places, but has taken the administration’s line opposing the right wing’s call to close our border with Mexico) and immigration. The panic began not because of the people in Mexico who are getting swine flu, but from the fact that last week two children in California were discovered to have it.

But then, before you know it, it passes. Not because we took precautions, and stayed out of confined spaces, but because it turned out to be everyday life rather than the end of it.

More of Newser founder Michael Wolff's articles and commentary can be found at VanityFair.com, where he writes a regular column. He can be emailed at michael@newser.com.

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OFF THE GRID is about why the news is the news. Here are the real motivations of both media and newsmakers. Here's the backstory. This is a look at the inner workings of desperate media, the inner life of the publicity crazed, and the true meaning of the news of the day.

 

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