The American public, it seems, is already exhausted by our (possible) pandemic. Even as HuffPo breaks the glass on their emergency 72 point font, people are suffering the first symptoms of Swine Flu fatigue. That is, in the weekend since H1N1 entered the national consciousness, our constant tumblring and retweeting, digesting and regergitating has produced an unwanted side effect—known in the medical community as general malaise—in our readers. Gawker.and Mother Jones are already posting second day stories (MoJo, as usual, a thoughtful and valuable piece, Gawker, likewise, notsomuch) on what is stil very much a first day story.
MAP OF THE OUTBREAK
Well, and how would you react? After all, this isn’t like the Chinese earthquake, where something happened all at once and we spent weeks finding out exactly what, or the financial crisis, which happened bit by bit every day. Right now, we’re mostly reporting what might happen in the future. Yeah, you shit yourself when you first heard about it, but this thing is moving so slowly…I mean, how long can one topic really stay at the top of Twitter trends when it takes three days for the CDC to confirm a new case? In a cycle where we can report each piece in real time, even the NYT’s valient attempt to constantly update a single, cohesive story each day feels exhausting.
Collective exhaustion presents some really serious problems. The threat of a viral pandemic in an era when we are more densely populated and internationally connected is real and close, the threat of a panic even more so. New York, which has 28 confirmed cases and at about 100 suspected ones has already seen a rush on the anti-flu drug Tamiflu and emergency rooms full of jittery would-be patients. You know where’s a really great place to get sick…but I digress.
You only have to look at last year’s outbreak of measles (a disease against which virtually the entire country is vaccinated), which was imported from London in early spring and swept Borough Park in the largest single outbreak since 1992 before traveling to Israel to see that disease travels differently now that it did even 5 or 10 years ago. Measels is a very contagious disease that is not endemic to North America (meaning it’s always imported) against which every New York City public school student must be vaccinated, basically on pain of death. And yet, there were more confirmed cases of measles in Brooklyn than there have been of swine flu in Queens (look for that to change, like, tomorrow).
The point in all this being, comparisons to the 1976 scare are largely false. Insofar as they address the potential for media-stoked hysteria, and the dangers inherent to rushing a vaccine, it’s illuminating to study, but otherwise the world of Gerald Ford hold’s little relevance for us @ 6.7 billion. If we allow ourselves (as readers as well as writers) either to be sucked into the collective hysteria or, conversely, to spit at the risk or use it as a springboard for something else entirely, we’re falling into our own trap. That is, Gawker and the Times are each a little right: keep the pandemic stoked 24/7 and we risk burrying public information in public bullshit.