Media

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.

COPYRIGHT 2009 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.

NEXT: How's This For a New Pakistan Strategy?: Just Leave Already

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. In politics these days it’s more about covering your butt than overreacting. And now, barely a week after the “crisis” began, cable media and some government officials are backing off on the dire predictions. Expect the president’s approval ratings to rise as the “threat” recedes.

  2. Or is it an iatrogenic crisis, like those caused by the centrally planned state money supply:

    http://www.javno.com/en-world/swine-flu-created-in-lab-as-bio-weapon_254118

  3. There is almost no danger from swine flu. They make it sound like this is a surprise, but in fact it was obvious from the start.

    It is precisely as dangerous as Bird Flu, Mad Cow, and SARS.

    Time and again, bureaucrats raise alarms, NOT because they panic too easily, but because the whole thing is an attempt to increase their own wealth and power, from the very start.

    I was a consultant in DC for ten years, and it was common for bureaucrats to actively discuss how they were making a big deal out of X, even though they knew it wasn’t really a danger, because Fear Equals Funding.

  4. “In politics these days it’s more about covering your butt than overreacting. And now, barely a week after the “crisis” began, cable media and some government officials are backing off on the dire predictions. Expect the president’s approval ratings to rise as the “threat” recedes.”

    That is absolutely right. I don’t think you can over estimate the damage that the media’s coverage of Katrina did to good government. Every politician and political appointee from both parties walked away from Katrina with one lesson; don’t be the guy who didn’t react fast enough. It is a cancer on our government. I hate the fucking media.

  5. I got a panicky text message from my mom last week, telling me to wash my hands and go to the doctor if I thought I might have “the swine flu.”

    Why was she panicked? Because the nurse at the (government) school mom works at ran around telling everybody that “things were going to get bad” because of swine flu.

    It’s not just the bigwigs that thrive on crises — petty bureaucrats use overhyped crises to make themselves feel more important.

    I may have been over-harsh in my reply to mom. (“Don’t take epidemiological advice from a bloody SCHOOL NURSE.”) I should probably apologize for it. Maybe for mother’s day.

  6. Time and again, bureaucrats raise alarms, NOT because they panic too easily, but because the whole thing is an attempt to increase their own wealth and power, from the very start.

    As always, a simple application of the First Iron Law explains it:

    You get more of what you reward, and less of what you punish.

    Bureaucrats are frequently rewarded as a result of crises, real or imagined.

    Bureaucrats are never punished for overreacting, but only for underreacting. Their risk aversion is, correspondingly, total, regardless of the cost of overreacting.

    You do the math.

  7. It’s Project Blue! Must find Mother Abagail.

  8. As of this morning’s news, just over 900 cases IN THE WORLD. And there are about 6,000,000,000 people IN THE WORLD.

    You do the math. Oh wait. Americans are too stupid to do the math. Wear a mask then.

    CB

  9. Its just SO overblown, Kind of like the west nile crisis. Just like west nile 90% of people who get it will be fine, mild regular flu. 9% or so will be severly affected, and 1% or so will die. Should we take steps to minimize, of course. but should we panic, HELL NO! They say pandemic and so many thousands or millions will be killed. but the last pandemic was in the 60″s opr so, we have much better meds, especially since the 1918 Pandemic

  10. Blocking all (U.S./Mexico) crossings would be a disruption on the order of sealing off Washington, D.C., from Maryland and Virginia.

    Now there’s an idea I can get behind. Can we make it permanent?

    No, not the Mexico thing, the other one.

  11. a crisis is without doubt the surest ally a government can have

    They’re useful to private interests as well. Rush Limbaugh? Michael Savage? Lou Dobbs?

  12. Great piece Chapman. However, sealing off our southern border made sense to me prior to the swine flu “scare,” so maybe we can just go ahead…….??

  13. Agreed that overreacting can be bad, but really people should NOT be going to work or school when sick. My company actually doesn’t charge for sick days, if you are sick stay home. Why come to work and get EVERYONE ELSE FUCKING SICK???

    It just creates a perpetual cycle of spreading. And you end up with half the office getting sick instead of having 1 or two people stay home at the start.

  14. I heard on the radio this morning that there are bad storms in the heartland. Because of a storm, a tree fell on one person resulting in that person’s death. So, in the US (the only country where I know the death totals off hand), the risk of dying of swine flu is about the same as the risk of dying from a tree falling on you.

  15. Agreed that overreacting can be bad, but really people should NOT be going to work or school when sick. My company actually doesn’t charge for sick days, if you are sick stay home. Why come to work and get EVERYONE ELSE FUCKING SICK???

    Some people don’t get sick days. Some people think that calling in sick is a sign of a bad work ethic.

  16. I was told by my roommate the other day that his father, an immunologist and biology professor explained to him how awful swine flu would be, and why it was so bad.

    I called bullshit, and he was marginally offended, and he asked me to refute the science. And ya know what… I can’t refute the danger of the disease itself, but if you are a thinking human able to put things like this into context, you instantly realize it’s not a big deal.

    News Flash: Being killed by a shark is terrifying and scary, and happens to almost no one each year. Subsequently, we don’t run around interviewing ichthyologists about how it’s time to go closing down all the beaches.

    It’s just a little upsetting to me that a college biology professor would be unable to assess legitimate risk in that way. Yep, it’s probably a bad disease if you get it. Will you get it? Nope.

  17. I’d also like to point out that people also likely panic due to humans’ limited ability to understand “big” numbers. 226 people sick registers as a number of people you might personally know and seems personal, real and possible… but that is of course out of 300,000,000 people, which is a number no one seems to be able to understand very well.

    226 = real and understandable, 300,000,000 is unimaginable, and the reality of cases being only affecting 0.00000753% of the US isn’t even mentioned or considered.

  18. I love the news footage of people wearing masks, hairnets, and gloves and scrubbing down every damn thing in the closed public schools. Now I thought that most viruses can not survive more than a few hours at most without a host, which would make the whole effort a completely retarded waste of time and money, or perhaps to show off to the media and paranoid parents that they are “doing something!”

  19. The chief symptoms of this outbreak of Influenza A(H1N1) appear to be Congestion of the News Hole and Inflammation of the Blogosphere.

    See:

    http://notionscapital.wordpress.com/2009/05/01/flu-fear-mongering/

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.