Forum: Y2Flu

A crisis of epochal proportions is coming, again, this time on wings. Chad Hermann finds the hysteria worse than the disease

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It's fitting for a week that saw the release of a new film about Chicken Little. On Tuesday President Bush -- whose entire presidency has been predicated upon dire warnings that the sky could fall at any time but whose administration proved woefully incapable of responding the one time it actually did -- unveiled a $7 billion plan to prepare us for the next big, scary cloud on our ever-darkening horizon.

   
Chad Hermann is a lecturer in management communication at the Tepper School of Business at Carnegie Mellon University (chad@andrew.cmu.edu). His Web log is "Teacher. Wordsmith. Madman."
   

All this talk about the avian flu -- which, breathless news reports and grim predictions aside, has still shown no hard evidence that it will mutate, nor any indication that it will ever readily spread from human to human -- makes me long for those heady days as 1999 came to a close. We all worried not about birdies, but about bits and bytes and binaries. It seems somehow better suited to the turn of the 21st century to have worried that our computers, not our cockatoos, might kill us.

Of course, avian flu does come with a handy, bureaucratic/technological designation -- H5N1, which sounds like either a virus or Sony's latest digital music player -- but it doesn't quite roll off the tongue the way Y2K did. More compelling as a global brand than as a global crisis, Y2K also benefited from the ruthless economy of its nomenclature. This season's apocalypse du jour has people babbling about avian flu, bird flu, H5N1, epidemics, and possible pandemics, producing as many synonyms as symptoms.

It's less a health crisis than an identity crisis. We should consult our doctors, but it seems more helpful to consult our dictionaries.

I suspect that won't change. And if I'm right, our next consultations should be with our therapists.

Because the real crisis here affects our mental health. With the epidemic of fear and false alarm. With the pandemic of paranoia and overblown, media-fed frenzy. With the newspaper and magazine and 24-hour-cable-news mill that runs most efficiently and ferociously on the grist of impending doom.

With a populace grown fat and half-informed on a steady diet of sensational hype, on worst-case scenarios and context-free sound bites, the kind that play much better when they claim "there's no doubt there will be another pandemic" than when they note "the science behind all the worry is questionable." With the shameless, shameful insistence -- the answer to "if it bleeds, it leads" for the poor power of post-9/11 existence -- that "if it scares, it airs." (And its ratings-driven addendum: "If it thinks, it stinks.")

There may be a pandemic this year. Or next year. Or the year after that. And it would be foolish to suggest that we should not be vigilant, that we should not take wise and ample precaution, that we should not be ready for whatever darks clouds may roll our way. But to say that "there's no doubt there will be another pandemic" is to fly in the face of exact science -- notice the absence of variables, the discrepancies between theory and observation -- and crash-land in the rear-end of divination.

The theory, which can never be falsified, is less a prediction than a prophecy, more a profession of faith than a point of fact. It's no different than foretelling that the Steelers will one day win another Super Bowl or that purple-polka-dotted wombats will one day fall from the heavens.

Maybe the science behind the worry really is questionable. But it's difficult to get that message. As in the run-up to Y2K, the voices of rational, studied dissent, the experts who won't fan the flames or provide sensational copy are merely pushed to the margins, or shouted down, or quoted deep in the bowels of the story if at all. Dr. Mark Siegel's outstanding book "False Alarm: The Truth About the Epidemic of Fear" should be required reading for every television talking head and listening ear.

We've been down this road before -- often enough in the last five years that we no longer need directions -- and always to a dull, dead end.

Despite those dread, dire predictions, Y2K came and went (as some voices of reason and temperance predicted) with nary a hiccup, much less a blackout or a meltdown. There's been no new terrorist attack on American soil or in New York City subways. The U.S. Postal Service has not been deluged with white-powdered, priority-mailed parcels of anthrax and smallpox. The Flesh-Eating Virus seems to have lost its appetite. SARS has gone AWOL. The West Nile Virus hit a low water mark. Mad Cow Disease is a lot less angry these days. Last year's garden-variety flu bug, the one that sent thousands of people scrambling for vaccines and fretting about shortages, came and went with some coughs and sneezes and fatalities, but hardly the eruption of death and disease we were led to believe and told to expect.

And now here we are, facing one more certainly uncertain, hysterically hysterical fear, that next great and terrible scourge that could kill 10 million people or that could just be, like all the great and terrible scourges in the last paragraph and the last six years, just a whole lot of worry about a whole lot of nothing.

Seventy-two years ago, an American president who knew a little something about dark clouds and deadly diseases looked to an expectant country, to a brave people already ravaged by economic hardship and soon to be savaged by another world war. He told us that "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself -- nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance."

As we rush to ignore this bit of wisdom, and as we boldly advance upon the retreats of reason and dispassion and the sudden death of careful moderation, I can't help but wonder if Franklin Delano Roosevelt could somehow see, in all its alarmable glory, the dawn of the 21st century. He spoke of economic depression, but he may as well have been talking about neurotic obsession.

Perhaps now, among the lurid cries of flu and fowl and (all too often) wolf, in the depressing, obsessing fall of 2005, we should once again listen to and learn from a man who exhorted us to stand tall, to remain constant, and to remember that our worst, most damnable diseases are almost always self-infected.



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