When news of the swine flu broke out, my first thought was that it would be a great time for a vacation in Tulum. During the brief panic over the bird flu in Hong Kong in the late 1990s, I took a fantastic, and fantastically discounted, trip there that I never could have afforded during non-epidemic times. I’m still considering a Mexican holiday, though I also realize that I could be making a huge error in not taking the threat of this pandemic more seriously.
The thing is, it’s hard to do so precisely because of the way the media is going into its utterly predictable full-on freak-out mode, replete with absurd sub-angles. Watching the CNN feed on one of those horrible little captive-audience elevator monitors the other day, I saw the headline, “Swine Flu and Twitter.” All this makes swine flu seem like a weirdly inflated pseudo-event on par with Obama’s first 100 days. David Rothkopf wrote about this other day on his Foreign Policy blog:
Swine flu! World Health Organization at alert level 4! Markets rocked by sell-offs! Howie Mandel was right! Never shake hands! Bathe in Purell! See if you can borrow a face mask from Michael Jackson! Or hold your breath whenever you are near a ham sandwich! Armies of pigs in uniform marching on Washington! Orwell was right: the animals have turned on us, become more dangerous than us! Four legs bad, two legs good! Head for the hills!
Once again, the media is reacting to a potential threat with its usual calm, responsibly recognizing that sensational coverage of diseases can have far worse consequences than the diseases themselves. Or not.
Remember SARS? Fewer people died of SARS than choked to death in the United States on small objects that year. But estimates of global economic losses exceeded $40 billion. Back then, I wrote an article called "The Buzz Bites Back" for the Washington Post about this phenomenon dubbing it an "infodemic." And it was clear at the time that the progress of the information revolution was amplifying the impact of these information epidemics and accelerating their spread. Yet, still hysteria reigns again.
Of course, I’m no epidemiologist. Maybe swine flu really will prove as horrifying as the infographics would suggest. I’m certainly glad that the Obama administration, the World Health Organization and other responsible entities are taking it seriously and making preparations. But cable news hysteria is not helping, and is actually having a perversely inoculating effect, making the whole thing seem like a bit of a joke. Meanwhile, the LA Times reports today, “[T]he current outbreak of the H1N1 virus, which emerged in San Diego and southern Mexico late last month, may not even do as much damage as the run-of-the-mill flu outbreaks that occur each winter without much fanfare.”
I bet I could get a really good deal on a beachfront suite right now.