On Pandemics and Panic

On Pandemics and Panic


While the world already deals with an ongoing global recession, there are concerns the worst is yet to come. The swine flu, which has killed dozens in Mexico, may become a deadly pandemic. Or maybe not:

“What makes this so difficult is we may be somewhere between an important but yet still uneventful public health occurrence here — with something that could literally die out over the next couple of weeks and never show up again — or this could be the opening act of a full-fledged influenza pandemic,” said Michael Osterholm, a prominent expert on global flu outbreaks with the University of Minnesota.

“We have no clue right now where we are between those two extremes. That’s the problem,” he said.

No one knows how serious this strain of flu is and there’s no understanding yet as to why there have been so many deaths in Mexico while all those infected in the U.S. have recovered. But we can’t just concern ourselves with the potential for catastrophic deaths, we must also concern ourselves with the potential for panic.

Here in the San Antonio area, officials closed a high school after a third students developed swine flu (the first two were the earliest Texas cases and both recovered). The local news did one of those door-to-door neighborhood segments in which they stick a mic into people’s faces and ask such professional questions as “How does it make you feel? Scary isn’t it?”

If this flu turns out to be a lingering problem, the kind of exploitation witnessed by the local news here can’t be how the media behave as a whole.

In a potential crisis, calm delivery of the facts is essential. But I fear the media have lost the ability to report on anything without sensationalizing the facts. Playing on our fears has proved such a reliable way to get our attention that I fully expect the cable news outlets to soon have theme music and spinning graphics for their “Pandemic Reports”. Even if this virus ends up being no worse than the typical flu, the media could create, if not outright panic, at least a level of unease that turns us all into agoraphobics. The last thing our economy needs is for everyone to start staying home.

Of course, if the swine flu does become catastrophically deadly, my concerns about media representation will seem pointless. We’ll have far greater worries than how sensational our news is. But that’s a scenario we all hope will be avoided.

  • Kevin

    and no HHS Secretary, Thanks again Party to NO where

  • Trescml

    I think the biggest issues will arise when people in the US start dying (and it will likely happen in opinion). People don’t blink at the 30,000 plus that die from the flu each year, but when whipped up into a frenzy can force actions that are worse than the actual disease. This should be watched carefully and contingency plans need to be dusted off quickly, but I agree Alan that the press has a role to be informative without going overboard for the sake of ratings.

  • Rich

    “there’s no understanding yet as to why there have been so many deaths in Mexico while all those infected in the U.S. have recovered.”

    Yeah, because we all know that the US has the absolute WORST healthcare system in the world. Just look – Cuba has no reported swine flu cases!! Just another reason why we need to duplicate their healthcare system here!!!

    Are you serious?!? “No understanding” why there are swine flu deaths in a developing country but no deaths in the US??

    Maybe we really DO need to adopt Hillarycare/Obamacare in the US….after all, it would be downright arrogant of the US citizens to recover from swine flu while other great countries let thier citizens die….

  • http://sidewaysmencken.blogspot michael reynolds


    You might want to wait for some actual scientific data before you leap astride your hobby horse and ride it around the ring.

    Let’s wait and see whether this swine flu is dismbiguated from some other illness in Mexico. Just to take one possibility. Or find out whether the virus has mutated after its initial strike. Or whether there might have been different methods of transmission resulting in different effects.

    It’s a bit early to decide that this is cause for yelling about the health care system more broadly.

  • http://detroitskeptic.com/blogs Nick Benjamin


    If we lose anybody to this pandemic it will prove the health system needs replacing. Remember our government alone spends more, per capita, on health care than any other government in the world. It’s not because our population is aging, or we’re rich. Europe and Japan are way older than us, and we’re not that much richer (per capita) than the rest of the world. We’re actually poorer than Luxembourg and Norway.

    Remember that when you defend the status quo. You not only have to prove we’re better than Mexico, and Cuba. You have to prove we’re better than France and Britain. A lot better.

    Good luck with that. You’ll probably be able to prove we’re better than Cuba, but the industrialized world does better than us on every measure I can think of. Which means that a) our system is really shitty, as it can’t keep people healthy even when we give it twice the funding the Brits give their system; or b) the entire world is lying to make us look bad.

    Cue Glenn Beck.