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Friday, May 8, 2009

Collective Stupidity

Only a couple of weeks later, the swine flu panic has lost all its glamor and exhaustive coverage. Today the front Web page of Washington Post did not have a single entry about it. I don't watch cable news networks, but I'm sure they are foaming at the mouths about the bank stress test and federal budget in this moment rather than the influenza.

According to the CDC Web site, there have been nearly 900 cases of lab-confirmed swine flu cases and 2 deaths. Two! One was a toddler who was visiting Texas from Mexico and probably contracted it there. Both deaths were related to pre-existing illnesses. Health officials now say the initially estimated death rate in Mexico (~6%) was too high, because the estimation of the base number of infected people was too small, because they only counted those who were sick enough to be hospitalized and tested for the virus. The estimation missed the large number of carriers walking around without feeling too sick. The same overestimation of danger occurred in SARS too. Duh! This is not rocket science. Wouldn't any experienced epidemiologist or infections disease physician already know the phenomenon?

I pat myself on the back for predicting within the first few days of the news barrage that this will be no big deal. The virus is fairly weak and not too lethal. The outbreaks occurred at the tail end of the flu season.

If the flu has done anything notable, it is to remind us (although there is no shortage of such reminders from time to time) how stupid the masses are. The health authorities, driven by the fear of being blamed by the mob and the eternal need to cover their own behind, hyped up the risks out of proportion. The news media, in desperate need to attract a large audience, screamed fire day and night. The people, urgently wanting to forget about the crumbling poor house they are living in, spewed their fears through the usual channels: racism and bigotry. "Close the border! Stop the Mexicans from entering!" There have been anecdotes of patients refusing services from Hispanic-looking nurses. Schools and entire school districts close down for a week, two weeks, and threw tens of thousands of students back homes and into malls, movie theaters, the streets, just because a few students had a fever. This happened in Maryland too, not just Texas, where you would expect their bureaucrats to be not so bright.

I am no expert in infectious disease or public health, not a physician, and not an epidemiologist. I've read just one book on the history of small pox and have some basic knowledge of how bugs go around. And I have a little bit of independent thinking and judgment. It is quite amazing how even "experts" blew the whole thing vastly out of proportion. The average person, including authoritative, confident talking-heads on TV, were losing their last shred of reason at the slightest, perhaps imaginery danger. The more ignorant a person is, the more hysterical he or she becomes. The real pandemic is a small mind. Unfortunately there is no cure for that.

It is funny (would be more funny if I didn't live here) that a small, low-risk bug would bring so much display of stupidity out of people. A good reminder for the next time when everyone rushes into something -- like rushing into the stock market, housing market, or tulips.


li said...



barb said...



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