Our regular correspondent Susan Ryder has fears, worries and concerns.
Just over a week ago we awoke to the news that the sky was falling. The latest cunning plan to decimate mankind had apparently unleashed itself in Mexico - which is as good a place as any, I suppose - and by God, it was only a matter of time before we were all doomed.
It seemed that the world’s media had been collectively possessed. To hell with droning on about the global credit crisis or their ongoing love affair with Barack Obama. Bring on the pandemic!
Within a matter of hours, we were bombarded with stories of Mexicans in crowded hospitals dying by the score of something called “Swine Flu.” Media fever intensified alongside the virus itself, with cases being reported in the United States and Canada. But the real breakthrough occurred when a handful of Auckland high school students started sneezing after a school trip to Mexico. It was the media equivalent of winning Powerball.
Houston, we have lift-off! Aaaachoo!!
What happened after that was just surreal. Legions of reporters camped outside the homes of the afflicted Rangitoto College students, providing “updates” every five minutes. Public health bigwigs fell over themselves to line up next to Health Minister Tony Ryall, despite nobody seeming to know much about anything, least of all the virus. Ryall was guaranteed to mention that the government remained “cautious” and “concerned” at least twice during every interview. Words like if, might, could, perhaps, potentially and possible were tossed around with gay abandon, while the stocks of Tamiflu, unneeded since SARS failed to live up to its promise of horror, were sailing out of pharmacies. The survivalists and oddbods who remain on full alert for the NEXT BIG THING scrambled to unearth supplies of trusty face-masks unused from the Bird Flu scare, and batteries and Weetbix from Y2K.
You can’t be too careful.
It was all going beautifully for the local media, except for a few inconvenient facts. First, the students looked a picture of health as they recovered quickly to smile and wave behind their windows for the cameras (albeit visibly bored with too many games of Monopoly). Second, the fatalities attributed to the virus stubbornly remained confined within the Mexican borders. And, third, try as they might, no amount of media time could improve the presentation skills of Tony Ryall and the health bureaucrats.
Then a stroke of luck occurred – a Swine Flu death in the United States. Holy Worldwide Disaster, Batman, we’ve gone international at last! There’s mileage in this story, dammit, even if we have to mate with Pinky and Perky to get it!
The World Health Organisation meanwhile was presenting a slightly less apocalyptic scenario. They quietly changed the name, from Swine Flu to something less headline friendly. They confirmed, as of yesterday, there were 985 laboratory-confirmed human cases of H1N1 in 20 countries, of which Mexico accounts for 590 alone, with 25 deaths. Of the remaining 19 countries, ten have one laboratory-confirmed case; two have two; Israel has three; New Zealand, four; and Germany, eight. Those in double figures are the UK with 15; Spain, 40; Canada, 85 and the US with 226. The sole US fatality was reported to be a Mexican toddler.
On the subject of pandemics, the WHO also states that the infamous Spanish Flu of 1918-19 claimed more than 40 million lives. Current epidemiological models, they say, project a “pandemic” as something resulting in the loss of two to seven million lives. The Swine Flu, by comparison, has a bit of work to do.
More facts: Did anybody bother to point out that Mexico is a country of nearly 120 million of which nearly 20 million live in Greater Mexico City alone? That many of its people live in poverty?
That ordinary influenza that has never even seen a pig routinely claims thousands of lives every year in many first-world countries?
Or that in the cold winter of 1975 there was a flu epidemic in this country? Many high schools reported high absentee levels due to the illness. There was talk of my own school closing down temporarily when the absentee figure crept near the 40% mark, but after the danger period of about a fortnight, everyone recovered and that was that with no fuss.
Instead we have the likes of the 32 year old who contacted Newstalk ZB on Sunday morning to say that she was terrified of getting the virus – in spite of never having left Auckland this year or associating with anybody who has recently been overseas. Consumers who stopped eating pork and pork products in spite of the WHO’s assurance that there is no risk of H1N1 infection from consumption of such meats. And an ever-increasing number of fatalities attributed to the virus which turn out to have been greatly exaggerated. Chalk it all up to that unholy media trinity of fears, worries and concerns, and to a much anticipated horseman of apocalypse that steadfastly refuses to arrive.
There is one bonus, however. At least it’s seen Tony Veitch vanish from the front pages. And it’s given Roche Pharmaceuticals and their shareholders something to smile about, too.
* * Read Susan Ryder’s column every Tuesday here at NOT PC * *