Finally, a global calamity where the best thing to do is stay home, drink beer, and watch TV. I’m doing my part.
Thank God for silver linings. I mean, global warming, the Af-Pak War, Somali pirates, world wide economic collapse, Susan Boyle … it’s all been too much lately. And now a new global menace is on the horizon, swine flu. It’s actually swine-bird-human flu to be more precise. It’s broken out in Mexico, and appears to have already spread to four continents. So what’s so bad about a little flu? Well, this flu is killing a fair number of its victims, including healthy young people. The scientific expression for a flu that kills healthy young people is “Oh, shit.” So how serious is this? No one knows. Should we panic and run for the hills? Definitely not. But, the gentle reader may ask, people are dying! Yes, they are. In fact people die of flu epidemics every year, typically in the hundreds of thousands every year. So let’s not lose perspective here. Moving right along, in my usual fashion I will comment on various aspects of this unfolding situation.
First of all, as disasters go, we are really prepared for this one. There are huge stockpiles of drugs to treat flus. There are enormous planet wide medical resources working on this as we speak, a vaccine will likely be ready within months. Virtually every government entity on the planet has whole departments devoted to public health, all of which can be brought to bear. And epidemics have been studied by very smart scientists for decades, we actually have a pretty good handle on this. These people do actually know what they are doing.
Which brings us to my first point, the armchair quarterbacking and conspiracy theorizing in this situation has already gotten ridiculous to offencive. In the states especially there are racist (or maybe just ignorant to be fair) pundits calling for the the USA to seal the border with Mexico. This is dumb for so many reasons. The first being that it not possible to seal a border. The second being that this would deny us a huge tool in monitoring people who come and go and identifying the infected ones. And yes, it would cost a huge pile of money. It would also cause a false sense of security, because the experts say that the best way to fight this is locally. The more we can stop its spread locally, the better off we will all be. We aren’t going to be able to stop this, but if we slow down its spread it will both give us time to make a vaccine and get us into the northern hemisphere summer, when the flu season tends to peter out all on its own. Lastly of course, it’s too late to close the border, the virus is already spread to four continents for God’s sake. I hate to say it, but “closing the barn door after the cows are gone” seems to be one of the only arrows left in many right wing pundit’s quivers.
And when we come to conspiracy theories, it gets worse. No this isn’t terrorism. It would take amazingly sophisticated technological resources to even consider using the flu as a biological weapon, few countries have those resources, let alone terrorists hiding in caves. Secondly, the flu is about the last pathogen one would chose to use for a biological weapon. No matter what, it is going to spread back to one’s own people. And worse, flu viruses are highly mutable and it could easily turn into something far more lethal than was intended. By the same token of course the people claiming this is some “new world order” plot to “thin the herds” also falls flat. There would be better ways to do it, and the herds are thinning themselves quite nicely as it is. (Not to mention the sophomoric immaturity of believing in some secret globe spanning secret world government.)
That being said, one should also keep in mind that while this flu almost certainly wasn’t created as a weapon, it most certainly will be used as a weapon. Aforementioned pundits are using it already to spread their message of hate. Some countries have already used it as an excuse to hit the USA with economic sanctions. And it can be assumed that governments, militaries, intelligence agencies, and commercial interests are quietly discussing how this can be best used to their advantage. Ex post facto conspiracies if you will.
And despite my cheery optimism, how bad could this get? Well, I’ve been reading about the 1918 Spanish Influenza pandemic, and the answer would have to be “pretty bad.” In 1918 somewhere between one third to half the human race caught Spanish Influenza, and 20 to 100 million people died. In October of 1918 nearly 200,000 Americans died of the flu, the worst mass death toll in US history. That’s about one person in every 500, so almost everyone knew someone who died. A comparable modern death toll would be 600,000 dead Americans. That kind of puts hurricane Katrina in perspective, hell, it puts almost every war the USA has ever fought in perspective.
Will it get that bad? No one knows, but in a few weeks we will know a lot more. If one is worried, wash one’s hands frequently and avoid crowds. (Wearing masks is optional, it can’t hurt but it’s probably little protection outside of health care settings.) And if one is really worried, stay home and watch TV. Because the last thing we need is people panicking in the streets.
(The above image is a reproduction of a painting made before 1918 and is claimed as Fair Use under US copyright law. I’m also pretty sure it’s public domain under US copyright law. It’s “Death of a Maiden” painted by the amazing Austrian artist Egon Schiele. He was an up and coming artist who might have changed the art world, but because of his untimely death few people outside of art history classes have heard of him. He died in 1918 of the Spanish Flu at age 28, three days after his six months pregnant wife died of the same. He made a few sketches of her in his last three days, his last works. So while the overall impact of a pandemic may be minor, the individual impact is tragedy beyond words. There was another Austrian artist of the same age in 1918 who survived the flu, damn shame he didn’t die instead. The Lord works in mysterious ways, nu?)