Rant of the Week


This is in the New York Times, March 28, 2006: 

The vaccines produced every year to prevent seasonal flu are unlikely to be of any use in warding off a pandemic strain. But a flu shot could provide at least some peace of mind, by preventing the false alarm that could come from catching a case of garden-variety flu.

Being older than 11 years old, I tend to look somewhat askance at warnings of pandemics.  That's because I'm old enough to remember that there were warnings about swine flu and Legionnaire's Disease, and SARS, and people talked seriously then about "pandemics" and "millions dead" and whether or not you should buy yourself a tight-fitting face-mask.  More from the New York Times:

Some health officials have recommended stockpiling two to three months’ worth of food, fuel and water in case a pandemic interferes with food distribution or staffing levels at public utilities, or people are advised to stay home.

Ahem.  Did you read this?  Are you scared now?  Have you scheduled a trip to the grocery store to stockpile three months worth of food in your basement?  No?  Are you crazy?  This is a serious newspaper which prides itself on credible reporting based on factual research and accurate information.  This newspaper is accountable, damnit! 

This newspaper is seriously quoting "health officials" as recommending that you stockpile food in your basement because this pandemic might be so serious that it will seriously impact the food supply chain. 

The article said nothing about arming yourself against roving bands of desperate mutants.

Am I crazy?  Even the usually-sober CBC has been hyping avian flu for the past several months, frequently bandying about the phrase "global pandemic". 

I often recall a phrase from a Michael Moore's documentary, in which he alleges that the government and media seem determined to frighten people, for two reasons.  Firstly, to scare you into obeying them because, they would have you believe, only they can save you.  Secondly, -- and this may sound counter-intuitive-- but they also want to scare you into consuming.  They need you to feel that your life is insecure or inadequate unless you have acquired all those valuable things that other people are trying to take away from you.  Our "way of life"-- a clever euphemism for "extravagant toys".  [added November 2009]

But then I think, ah, no-- this is the famous New York Times, and the CBC, for heaven's sake, not ABC news... 

The New York Times goes on to describe how "some experts" are afraid that this particular flu virus might mutate in humans and spread very, very quickly, and might even reach Arctic communities that can only be accessed by dogsled, like the Spanish flu.

The Spanish flu of 1917-18 was real.  That is the nightmare our "health officials" worry about.  Millions of people really did die.  The threat of nuclear war in the 1960's was more real than even the alarmists thought.  The generals really were-- and sometimes still are-- psychotic lunatics.  They were really prepared to bomb the entire planet into oblivion rather than surrender to any kind of Soviet ultimatum. 

Pardon me if I observe, however, that people really did die of flu back then, and not just of Spanish flu.  They died young, of any of dozens of illnesses or infections or injuries, most of which we have managed to overcome lately with basic nutrition, hygiene, safety precautions, and decent health care.  Are we really vulnerable to a large scale "pandemic" of anything?  In fairness to the New York Times, that same article quotes some "health officials" as believing that the likelihood of a pandemic is very small.

Nutrition and medical care today are way, way better than they were in 1917.  Counter-point: about half of the people infected with avian flu (who caught it directly from birds) die.  Counter-counter-point: what sometimes happens during these scares is that every random flu-like illness suddenly becomes attributed to the high-profile threat.

There is a subtext.  Nobody who seriously believes in the threat of avian flu believes the government should have less authority to force people to be vaccinated or shutdown air ports, or arrest people. 

I do wish I could bet against the CBC on the issue.  It wouldn't have to be a decisive yes/no type of bet.  I would just like the CBC to carefully and publicly state what it thinks the odds really are-- and put money behind it.  They benefit from hyping the threat of a pandemic by getting interested listeners, who can't wait to hear about the latest potential disaster. 

There should be five million dollars on deposit with a neutral third party.  If we get an pandemic, the CBC gets to keep their money and the listeners.

But if there is no pandemic-- as there never was a SARS outbreak, for all the ink spilled about that business-- skeptics like me should get paid for putting up with the bullshit for so long.

All contents © 2006 Bill Van Dyk