The pandemic of panics

Wesley Pruden:

We were all supposed to be in the graveyard by now, done in by AIDS, SARS, bird flu, poisoned peanut butter, Hong Kong flu, killer tomatoes, global warming and strangulation by kudzu. But here we are, proof that there really is life after death.

Now we learn that we might freeze before the pigs get us. (The chickens failed.) NASA scientists have observed that the solar wind is the weakest since we began keeping such records, that the magnetic axis of the sun is tilted to an unusual degree, and Ol' Sol is the quietest he has been in a century. A chill, say the solar scientists, may be on the way. (Or not.) Worse, says one of them, this could compel reappraisal of the science of global warning. Try as he might, poor old Al Gore just can't keep the cosmos in line.

But this week Ol' Sol has been put in the shade by a new panic du jour. The cable-TV networks and the Internet are bubbling with sunspots, even if the sun isn't. Sample these latest headlines from the Drudge Report: "Two flu cases confirmed in Scotland. Has globalization made us more catastrophe-prone? Swine flu sweeps the globe. Swine flu closes football stadiums. The world must work together against this threat."

We haven't seen a panic quite like this one since the last one. SARS was once thought to be the ultimate panic, though the longest running panic was the AIDS scare, when big media set out to convince us that "now we are all at risk." SARS was never a threat in the United States, and worth the P-word only in China and even there a risk confined mostly to people who sleep with their chickens. You can step in all manner of unpleasant things in a chicken house. AIDS continues to be a succession of personal tragedies, but it has lost its power to terrorize continents. Worse, it lost its media cachet. Besides, nobody at the New York Times or at CNN wants to credit George W. Bush with anything good, or even acknowledge how he has become a hero in Africa for the American campaign against AIDS in Africa that has saved millions of lives.

But here we go again. The World Health Organization is heroically feeding the hysteria with the warning on front pages across the globe and trumpeted by hundreds of television talking heads: "The World Health Organization has warned that the [swine flu] virus has the potential to become a pandemic." The words "flu" and "pandemic" are such powerful scare words that almost nobody notices the accompanying weasel words "may," "could," "might," "potentially" and "possibly" that would stand out in bright red and green neon to the skeptical eye of a wizened old city editor. Alas, most of the wizened old city editors really are in the graveyard, having succumbed more to world-weariness than to fashionable diseases. The director of the World Influenza Center in London says of the outbreak, such as it is so far: "It's difficult to look on the bright side."

...

Pruden goes on to give a bright side to this relatively contained flu outbreak that has not been deadly at all in the US so far. I think it is a pandemic that to date has not matched the hysteria. Let's hope it stays that way.

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