On Pandemics and Panic

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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.