Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Panicking too soon won't stave off swine flu

Something very akin to panic is sweeping much of the world as a mixed-bag strain of swine flu spreads from Mexico outwards.

Mum and Pa have been trying to keep things in perspective, by telling ourselves
(a) there are no confirmed cases yet in our neck of the woods
(b) despite a climbing death toll in Mexico, no cases outside that country have resulted in deaths
(c) we can't live our lives in terror anyway, since we could also be run over by a bus tomorrow.

Nonetheless, we are exhaustively scrutinising news reports as a planned two-day trip to Malaysia next week draws near. If there are incidents of infection along our travel route or at our intended destination, we might decide to pull the plug, absorb the cost of already-booked tickets and rooms - and just play safe.

People, after all, aren't always the most rational of creatures and we're as human as the next Joe. Applying Reason only gets you so far, and then instinct, or the fear factor, or the unconscious exerts its own insidious pull. Yet in other things, this fact shows itself in less than chilling ways. For instance, though every parent knows that his child is not likely to be much more than just averagely adorable, he is also typically convinced that Junior is the cutest critter the species has ever produced. Deny it if you will, but that sort of sentiment festers in virtually all mothers and fathers.

It is therefore probably true that, to the extent to which some phenomenon strikes close to our own lives or our near-and-dear, the sway of Logic is that much more likely to falter. No wonder, then, that growing concern over swine flu - however overblown if assessed with cold rationality - is pulsing as we contemplate the possibility of our own clan being struck down. Of course, if we don't destabilise other people's lives, we are free to overreact as we wish - whether it is by avoiding pork (even though there is absolutely no evidence that diet is relevant to the outbreak) or locking ourselves in our homes. Should we have especially vulnerable souls under our care, we are perhaps more justified in building in an additional margin of safety: Why venture into large crowds for no reason, say, if there have been known swine-flu cases in your town? But if worry-wartism extends to hunkering down with tinned food at home, even though no one within thousands of miles has fallen sick yet, absurdity is surely knocking on your doorstep.

Besides, one is led to finally note, if we work ourselves into such a frenzy of fear even when the scourge is not yet in sight, how are we supposed to react if it does emerge? Are we then more likely to become dangerously unreasonable, causing harm to others as we cross the line into utter paranoia? One hopes not.

The bare facts about this outbreak are frightening enough.