Overreacting to Swine Flu

Why staying calm is the best medicine


I know I'm supposed to keep calm in a crisis, but in my experience, any crisis that makes the news is cause for fear, alarm, and panic. Not necessarily because of the danger posed by the crisis, but because of the danger posed by reactions to it.

Diamonds may or may not be a girl's best friend, but a crisis is without doubt the surest ally a government can have. Without crises, we could almost forget the need for any government. But with crises—real, imagined, or, like swine flu, greatly exaggerated—we often find ourselves supplied with far more of it than is necessary or healthy.

White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel will someday be in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations for his well-received admonition to those serving in public office: "You never want a serious crisis to go to waste." Like that ever happens.

Not only does the federal government always make ample use of crises, it makes small ones large and passing ones permanent. Consider the Energy Department, which has 16,000 employees and a budget of $34 billion. It was created to solve the energy chaos of the 1970s, which it failed to do. The chaos subsided only when President Reagan gave the department less to do by abolishing federal controls on gasoline prices. Yet the bureaucracy lives on.

Swine flu has offered the spectacle of the president of the United States tutoring the citizenry, as though it were a class of 3rd-graders, on the wisdom of washing hands. But Barack Obama showed commendable judgment by focusing on modest, cost-free responses.

Vice President Joe Biden exhibited less restraint, volunteering that it would be dangerous to venture into a commercial aircraft or any other "closed container." His suggestion apparently ruled out all travel by airline, train, subway, bus, or San Francisco streetcar, and thus ruled out a large share of economic activity.

Though he quickly reversed course, the damage may have been done. Rather than commute or travel in the company of others, some people may take their cars, where they are slightly less likely to catch the flu and far more likely to have a fatal crash.

Biden's suggestion was not as intemperate as one circulating on Capitol Hill and elsewhere: closing the border with Mexico, pushed by House members like Eric Massa (D-N.Y.), and Trent Franks (R-Ariz.), despite the advice of health experts. Says Richard Besser, acting director of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "Intensive efforts at the border are not effective means for protecting against an infectious disease."

A closure would, however, be an effective means of complicating lives and choking off commerce, which is an especially bad idea during a recession. On an average day, some 700,000 people enter the United States legally from Mexico so they can work, shop, and visit relatives. Blocking all crossings would be a disruption on the order of sealing off Washington, D.C., from Maryland and Virginia.

But the idea of closing the border is bound to have great appeal to those who thought that was a great idea before this flu made its appearance. If the virus had been traced to Canada, sealing ourselves off from a neighbor would somehow have far less emotional appeal.

The epidemic has been a boon to supporters of a bill called the Healthy Families Act, which would require companies with 15 or more employees to provide each of them with seven paid sick days a year. Public health authorities ask those who are sick to stay home, but "they don't give any thought to the half of workers who don't have paid sick days," laments Karen Minatelli of the National Partnership for Women and Families.

But she overstates the problem. Data from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics indicate that 86 percent of full-time employees have paid time off that they can use when illness strikes them or their children.

Supporters of the measure forget that if companies are forced to provide paid leave, they will compensate, sooner or later, by reducing wages. Given the tradeoff, some workers (particularly those who rarely get sick) would rather have the cash. This legislation attempts to make them better off by depriving them of that option, all in the name of sparing their fellow citizens an attack of swine flu.

Most of us are likely to escape that virus. But no inoculation can rescue us from the fever gripping Washington.