Was the swine flu overreaction useful?

Anne Applebaum has an interesting piece over at Slate arguing that while the reaction to swine flu may have been overblown, we should ultimately be grateful for it: Before "that panic was ridiculous" becomes the conventional wisdom, let’s be frank about it: Where infectious diseases are concerned, panic is good. Panic is what we want. ...

Anne Applebaum has an interesting piece over at Slate arguing that while the reaction to swine flu may have been overblown, we should ultimately be grateful for it:

Before "that panic was ridiculous" becomes the conventional wisdom, let's be frank about it: Where infectious diseases are concerned, panic is good. Panic is what we want. Without panic, nothing happens. Up to 500 million people will get malaria this year, and more than 1 million of them will die, mostly in very poor countries. Yet there is no fear of malaria in the rich world; there is no hysterical media coverage, and thus there is still no satisfactory prevention or cure.

By contrast, designs for preventions and cures for swine flu are already, after a mere two weeks of hyperattention, well on track. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has not only developed a test kit to detect the presence of the H1N1 virus that causes the flu; it has already shipped this test kit to all 50 states, plus Puerto Rico and several other countries. Genetic sequences of the virus have been analyzed and databased. A vaccine will probably be ready in time for flu season next fall. Boxes of Tamiflu have been transported to guarded warehouses around the globe, where they await distribution.[...]

Anne Applebaum has an interesting piece over at Slate arguing that while the reaction to swine flu may have been overblown, we should ultimately be grateful for it:

Before "that panic was ridiculous" becomes the conventional wisdom, let’s be frank about it: Where infectious diseases are concerned, panic is good. Panic is what we want. Without panic, nothing happens. Up to 500 million people will get malaria this year, and more than 1 million of them will die, mostly in very poor countries. Yet there is no fear of malaria in the rich world; there is no hysterical media coverage, and thus there is still no satisfactory prevention or cure.

By contrast, designs for preventions and cures for swine flu are already, after a mere two weeks of hyperattention, well on track. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has not only developed a test kit to detect the presence of the H1N1 virus that causes the flu; it has already shipped this test kit to all 50 states, plus Puerto Rico and several other countries. Genetic sequences of the virus have been analyzed and databased. A vaccine will probably be ready in time for flu season next fall. Boxes of Tamiflu have been transported to guarded warehouses around the globe, where they await distribution.[…]

if the H1N1 virus mutates into something really dangerous, we’ll all be in trouble. But not in as much trouble as we would be if it hadn’t been for that brief, possibly ludicrous but nevertheless useful moment of mass hysteria that brought us such terrific headlines over the past couple of weeks.

All of this is true. But I’m not sure about the conclusion. First, I don’t really understand Applebaum’s argument that infectious disease, in particular, are an issue that benefits from public hysteria as opposed to any other threat. If the media was doing a public service by treating thirty deaths in Mexico like the black death, shouldn’t they be trying to work people into a panic over nuclear terrorism or global warming? The argument that "Without panic, nothing happens" could apply to any number of very real threats, but I’d still prefer not to live in a state of perpetual terror.

Beyond that, is a state of panic really the best time to be making critical decisions? There were certainly some rational government responses to the flu. But there were also quite a number that were really, really stupid. Thankfully, the U.S. government resisted the urge to do anything too drastic in response to swine flu, (congress wasn’t exactly a big help) but from Japanese Internment to Gitmo, the United States has done some very regrettable things during times of high public fear. I’m not sure it’s wise to make it a regular thing. I also think its likely that the hysteria over the swine flu outbreak could make us less likely to take it seriously if a real pandemic should emerge.

Joshua Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy  Twitter: @joshuakeating

Tag: Health

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