Who gets first prize for the dumbest response to it yet? Is it the government of Egypt? Or Russia? Or Joe Biden?
In the matter of swine flu – and the single dumbest response to it yet – first prize was about to go to the government of Egypt, which last week ordered a cull of the country’s estimated 400,000 pigs, never mind that the disease, name notwithstanding, is mainly transmitted human-to-human.
But then an Egyptian health official admitted “the authorities took advantage of the situation to resolve the question of disorderly pig rearing.” More likely, as the country’s Coptic minority was quick to suspect, was that health and sanitation were merely pretexts to extend anti-Christian bigotry into matters of livelihood and diet.
So that leaves the runners-up: protectionist Russia, which used the flu panic to ban pork imports from Spain and Canada; U.S. immigration restrictionists, who see in the “Mexican flu” a fresh reason to argue for a wall along the border; and panicky Joe Biden, who unwittingly made the case against Amtrak (“I wouldn’t go anywhere in confined places now”) until his handlers interceded. Who knew Mr. Biden was talking about himself when he warned last year that Barack Obama would be tested by crisis early in his presidency?
Of course the winner of the contest is Mr. Biden, since he lacks even the excuse of a self-interested motive. But standing right behind the vice president is a legion of heavily credentialed panic proliferators.
These are the people whose terrifying forecasts you last heard during the avian flu panic of 2005 (deaths to date: 257, according to the World Health Organization) and the SARS panic of 2002-2003 (774 deaths). By contrast, garden-variety flus typically kill upwards of 30,000 Americans a year.
You might also have a vague memory of the “mad cow” panic that gripped the world in the 1990s. In his 1997 book “Deadly Feasts,” Richard Rhodes warned that the human variant of mad cow, known as vCJD, might kill as many as 500,000 people a year in Britain alone. So far, total confirmed cases world-wide run to around 150.
Today’s touchstone for panic is the 1918-20 Spanish Flu, mention of which seems to be included in nearly every news account of the swine flu outbreak. The Spanish Flu killed anywhere between 20 and 50 million people, at a time when the world’s population numbered around 1.9 billion. Adjusting for population growth, the University of Minnesota’s Michael Osterholm has suggested a modern-day outbreak could claim as many as 360 million lives.
But wait: Hasn’t medical science made some progress in the past 90 years? An article in yesterday’s Times of London notes that in 1919 the recommended precautions included mustard baths, Bovril (a salty meat extract, apparently), and salt water for gargling. Also, “the good effects of wine continue to be emphasized, and most agree in selecting port as the best of these.”