30 April, 2009

Beware of Panic Fatigue

The swine flu scare has already caused a pandemic of idiotic scaremongering masquerading as news. While the news networks have very little to say and an awful lot of time to say it in, I think the worst effort I've seen so far was tonight where A Current Affair had a live cross to a house in New Zealand where three people suspected of being infected were interviewed while leaning out a second storey window, with the sound man standing on the ground holding the boom mic up to them and the cameraman zooming in from a safe distance. It sounded like even Tracey Grimshaw had to stifle a few giggles at the stupidity of it all.

The biggest problem with all the media beat-ups is that it provokes a backlash not against those who are whipping up a frenzy for the sake of ratings, but against the issue itself and those trying to talk sense about it. Since the people endlessly speculating on whether it could be the new plague or bioterrorism are clearly idiots, that means there's nothing to worry about, right?
This kind of thinking is just as dangerous as the scaremongering.

Then there are those who will instantly cite the issue as proof of their own political hobby-horse. For instance, it can't just be a coincidence that this came in the same week that a 747 made a low, unannounced flight over New York, terrorising the locals and Dick Cheney has been on TV trying to scare the shit out of people, right? Right? No, it's all the fault of illegal immigrants. Ho-hum.

I've already read of the threat being compared to the Y2K bug in terms of it being a fizzer. It's almost as if people are disappointed when a threat doesn't eventuate. But the reason Y2K was a “fizzer” and didn't plunge us back into the dark ages is because we took the threat seriously and prepared for it so that when the clocks ticked over, the worst that happened was a few strange late fees at video libraries. People seem to take that good outcome to mean we were worried about nothing. We were not. We dealt with it.

It's these kind of attitudes that lead people to blow off new threats just because previous threats have been averted. In 2005, when hurricane Katrina threatened New Orleans, many people chose not to evacuate since it never turns out as bad as they say it will. Until it turns out worse. So last year, when Hurricane Gustav looked like it could hit New Orleans, the city became a ghost town. (In fairness, evacuating was easier that time since less than half the people who left in 2005 have returned) Mercifully this time, New Orleans was not hit badly. And that will give people the excuse to be a little more blasé next time and maybe even more so the time after that as they forget how bad things can be if they don't prepare for the worst. Some scoffed when John Brumby predicted that the 7th of February would be one of the worst days in Victorian history. The problem was that he was right.

So yes, the threat is probably, hopefully, overstated. And although the tabloid reporting of it is utterly irresponsible, there's something to be said for overstating a threat a bit so that people take it seriously but not so much as to be thrown into a mad panic. There's also the theory that what is being referred to as “swine flu” is in fact two separate strains since the only cases outside of Mexico have been quite mild, although there are other possible explanations for this too.

It's times like these that a few tired old clichés really ring true.
Be alert, not alarmed.
Better safe than sorry.

It was refreshing to read some common-sense perspective in this report:

Streiffer said it's important to keep the threat of swine flu in perspective. It's a new strain of influenza, so people haven't built up immunity and vaccines won't block it, but there is no indication that it is any more virulent or dangerous for normally healthy people than the more typcial strains of flu.

"What people don't seem to understand is it's not worse than the average flu, except there's no herd immunity -- which means there's no immunity in the general population -- therefore, everyone's at risk, but not necessarily for anything more virulent or dangerous than average influenza."

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