Swine Flu

(Nurses at Walter Reed Army Hospital treating Spanish Influenza epidemic in 1918)

This swine flu thing (also known as H1N1) has left me with an uneasy feeling. And not because of the flu virus itself. Sad to say, influenza epidemics come and go. As recently as 1976 there was an outbreak among 500 soldiers at Fort Dix, N.J. Only one soldier died. Some are are more widespread than others. One of the most dramatic far reaching instances occurred in the influenza pandemic of 1918-1919. It was also known as Spanish Influenza or "La Grippe" (it first popped up in Madrid in 1918) and it killed tens of millions worldwide. Of course then there were no vaccines or antibiotics. A far cry from today. No, what bothers me about this one is the incessant, shrill cry in some quarters to assess blame. In times of stress we, as a species, have a habit of blaming "the other" for all our ills. It's bad enough that our hysteria is being fueled by a 24-hour news cycle of saturation coverage on cable news shows and the Internet. I wonder if we would be so hysterical where this not the case.

There are some commentators who are using this crisis to stoke rabid anti-immigration, specifically against Mexicans. The logic goes like this: this new epidemic has, as far as we know, its epicenter in Mexico. The outbreak began there on March 9th, so claim Government officials. It began in a village called, ironically, La Gloria ("The Glory"). And it quickly spread throughout Mexico where to date, there have been 159 deaths. The flu was transported of the U.S. when a group of students from St. Francis Preparatory School in Fresh Meadows, Queens, traveled to Cancun for spring break. And guess what they brought back with them? Thus far in the U.S. there have been 280 confirmed cases of this flu; and all 49 confirmed cases in New York City have been associated with the outbreak at St. Francis Prep (according to the New York Times).

In a country of 300+ million we have 280 confirmed cases. Health officials state, because of the nature of the disease, it's bound to get worse. What's interesting is that most of the cases associated with St. Francis Preparatory school have been of a mild form (unlike Mexico). In the U.S., thus far, there's been one death, a toddler in Texas. Those are the facts and the statistics. And we all hope that this crisis can be handled and it will pass. However, there are those who will use any crisis for their own agendas. There have been calls to seal the border with Mexico, curb all immigration, prevent all those foreigners from coming here to infect our shores; and, in some cases, the crisis is used as another example of our lax immigration policy. If we didn't have the Mexicans here we wouldn't have the flu. Admittedly, there is a lot of anxiety in the country right now. That's understandable. We are all concerned with our health and particularly those of our children, especially when as Fox News proclaimed on Wednesday "swine flu plagues the nation." But, please, let's keep a level head, least we descend into that abyss of recrimination and prejudice that seems to flare up at times like these.

The Black Death
It's an old story, the idea of blaming "the other." It's as old as history itself. During the 1840's and 50's upright Protestant Americans considered the then Irish immigrants arriving in this country to be a sick, filthy bunch who would bring all the ailments of the old world with them. Add to that, heaven forbid, they were Catholics. There have always been scapegoats During the "Black Death" or the bubonic plague that infected Medieval Europe, where a third of the population died, it was the Jews and witches who were blamed for causing the plague. The plague had become a full-fledged pandemic by 1328 and, in the case of the Jews, rumors spread that they had caused the disease by deliberately poisoning wells. Hundred of Jewish communities were destroyed by violence in the Iberian Peninsula and in Germany, even though then Pope Clement VI issued a declaration stating that the Jews were not responsible for the plague. In the case of witches, it was women who were accused of consorting with the devil to bring about the blight. Hundreds were burned at the stake. It didn't matter. The plague continued on its deadly rampage decimating whole towns and cities.

Hopefully, this time around, we won't come to that pass. From the White House on down there is a concerted effort to curtail this disease and halt its spread. Yes, everything must be done to safeguard our health and our safety. But let's keep in mind that no one group is responsible for the ills of a nation. We've had SARS and Hong Kong flu and Avian flu and Legionnaire's Disease, you name it. No one group has been responsible for that. It's the nature of the beast that new viruses keep popping up and new countermeasures have to be developed. It's not the wrath of God or punishment for our lax and immoral ways or just retribution for whatever. It's simply the way life is in the early 21st century. Instead of blaming "the other," perhaps we should be more understanding of what "the other" is going through.

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