The racism in our response to the swine flu outbreak
Two Fridays ago we were all blissfully unaware of the impending doom about to be unleashed by those damn Mexicans and their unusual domestic arrangements with pigs. By Monday April 27 we were in the brace position – suspiciously eyeing anyone who appeared to be of Latin origin – and being warned not to cause a run on the national supply of Tamiflu.
By midnight that night all pilots in charge of flights coming from affected countries were ordered to report any passengers with flu-like symptoms, while TV news bulletins led with the installation of thermal imaging scanners at the airports. The NSW Government rushed through emergency powers to detain people with suspected cases in their homes. But swine flu jokes were already rampant as the death toll from suspected cases in Mexico climbed to the low hundreds.
Then the unthinkable happened – a 23-month-old became the first person to die of suspected H1N1 in the United States. The UNITED STATES!
Forget that Mexico City had been reduced from a thriving international metropolis to a ghost town where no-one went to school and even worse, the Mexican premiere of Wolverine was cancelled. Swine flu was now officially a disaster. “That’s so sad,” (about the American toddler, not Wolverine), said a friend who up to that point had only been making Mexican jokes.
According the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, in the 2007-08 flu season 83 children (under 18) died in the US of laboratory-confirmed influenza. A majority were killed by influenza A viruses, 27 by influenza B, and one poor little kid had a combination of the two. No mention of H1N1, the scientific name for swine flu. In 2006-07 the paediatric death toll in the US was 68; in 2005-06 it was 41. But the toddler who died in Texas last week was reported as a “likely trigger” for the WHO to declare a pandemic.
So in three years the US lost 192 children to the flu. And yet the QF108 red eye from Los Angeles has been allowed to land at Kingsford Smith unmolested by thermal imaging and detainment orders for years until just last week. You’ve got to wonder how much of the world’s reaction to swine flu has been because its unfortunate name and that it appears to have originated in Mexico.
Like bird flu and SARS, which turned the world’s attention on the shortcomings of heath authorities in some Asian countries, swine flu seems to have confirmed the worst of our suspicions about people who don’t live in nice developed nations such as Australia, the US, and in Western Europe.
As with swine flu the names didn’t help. Bird flu sounded dirty, and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome downright terrifying. Wall-to-wall images of millions of masked people on the streets of Hong Kong, Shanghai and Taipei only added to the perception here that Asia was just one giant Petri dish.
Both outbreaks turned out to be relatively minor in the pages of history, but only after months of worldwide hysteria. Having spent a year in the UK as a teenager pulling pints in the early 90s I’m not allowed to give blood here for fear of passing on Mad Cow. It works out quite well for me – I can talk about how much I would like to give blood, while secretly being pleased they won’t let me anywhere near the wrong end of a needle.
Bovine spongiform encephalopathy is a hideous affliction that causes degeneration of the brain and spinal chord in cattle. Its human form is called Creutzfeldt–Jakob Disease and the first signs are the rapid onset of dementia, speech impairment, balance and co-ordination problems and seizures.
It’s pretty rare, but there’s no cure and CJD is usually fatal. This doesn’t stop me and many others wearing the minuscule possibility we carry the disease like a badge of honour. It’s like we lived through the Blitz or something – in London, which is in England, a nice place where people don’t live with their pigs and chickens.
I doubt there’ll be the same camaraderie among those who fronted to their GP last week and were ordered to stay at home until their flu-like symptoms dissipated. No-one wants to be the one with suspected swine flu, and the constant references on Twitter and Facebook to the possibility of being a carrier, have a slightly unfunny, hysterical air to them.
And yet on Tuesday (our time) Mexican authorities began to lift the emergency procedures, in the belief the epidemic may have peaked.
The rest of the world is not so sure but the information saturation of last week is starting to look like an over-reaction. Those driving it might like to ask themselves why.
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