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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Panic Room

Published: September 25, 2009
Section: Opinions

<i>ILLUSTRATION BY Andrea Fishman/The Hoot</i>

ILLUSTRATION BY Andrea Fishman/The Hoot

It was the beginning of this year when the news first broke. Reports of a mystery virus killing hundreds in Mexico and spreading popped up on every channel. This is when the word “pandemic” appeared and suddenly the world was taken by storm. A flu mutation had developed which killed over five percent of those afflicted and it was spreading fast.

The only line missing was “Lock up your children!” We had an international panic attack on the horizon. Shortly after these initial reports of Armageddon, less heralded news articles started declaring this cynical scenario to be false. Evidently, someone had miscalculated, and this new virus killed fewer people than the seasonal flu.

However, by this time, the genie was already out of the bottle. The flu was called swine flu because it came from pigs. This immediately led to a body blow to the pork industry, in spite of the fact that eating cooked pork couldn’t possibly transmit the disease. Egypt even went so far as to slaughter every pig in the country to prevent the breakout of swine flu (unfortunately, their novel plan failed as H1N1 has appeared in Egypt). Eventually, swine flu became known as H1N1 because the stigma it attached to pigs was suffocating the pork industry.

Everywhere, masks were selling off the shelves and price gougers gorged themselves on the wave of conformist hypochondriacs who were desperate to “protect” themselves. Meanwhile, noble media conduits kept the public abreast of the story by constantly reporting new deaths associated with the disease, and new locations where it was suspected to be.

Naturally, the report of the overall lethality of the disease was a little later in the program. Luckily, rather than lose its head along with everyone else, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) began to quietly prepare.

They issued guidelines on how to prevent getting the flu which included washing one’s hands frequently, getting enough sleep, and covering one’s mouth if one has the disease. If these guidelines seem familiar, it’s because they are. The advice was almost exactly the same as the advice given to people for the seasonal flu. Thus, the idea that this new and more exotic form of the flu is any more contagious than the actual flu is a fallacy.

The problem with the mass hysteria concerning swine flu is not that it may result in increased protection but that it leads to even more mass hysteria. People are panicking everywhere, from parents who want their kids to wear face masks to institutions which are basically quarantining those even suspected of having the virus.

The real losers in this process are those with H1N1. Not only do they have to face the flu but they have to face the wrath of society. Through no fault of their own, they have come down with what is little more than a different strain of the flu and for this they are treated like pariahs. Our own university has vaguely alluded to actually sending people afflicted with the disease off campus.

However, there are many problems with such an absolutist policy. First of all, it is very hard to tell the difference between the normal flu and swine flu. Their symptoms are basically the same and it takes a lab test to confirm the presence of the newer virus. Thus, as flu season rears up, we could end up with hundreds of students being basically shunted off campus because they’re sick when they’re not necessarily sick with swine flu.

Secondly, there is no reason to take this approach. Another policy in place is that students whose roommates are sick with the flu can be sent to other rooms around campus until their roommates are well while their roommates rest and recover. This makes much more sense than encouraging students to go home.

Also, one might wonder in the case of classes whether some kind of video broadcast of the lecture could be arranged for the student as another student’s notes are not an adequate substitute for a class. This would also make sure that those who considered missing classes more lethal than the flu would not have to hide their sickness in order to still attend. This might cut down on the virulence of the flu itself.

Finally, a general announcement of some sort is needed. The panic over this disease has gone too far. Swine flu is just as dangerous as the regular flu and the stigma that is associated with it is completely unearned. Vaccines have already been developed for it and they should be available for everyone by mid-October (my heart goes out to the suppliers).

Should we completely ignore the disease? Of course not, but there is no need to treat it in any way differently than we treat regular flu. In other words, educate people about it, teach them preventative methods, and accommodate those who have the disease in the best way possible.

One would imagine that this would already be the case but it seems like it’ll only happen when @#$% fly.