There's a piece in today's NYT that could go a long way toward soothing our national pig panic.
People have been wondering why, thus far, Mexico's death toll from swine flu has been significantly higher than in other places. One theory holds that a more deadly virus is prowling south of the border, raising the unnerving specter of it packing up and going global at any moment.
But another theory is that the disparity has much to do with what the Times describes as "the eclectic approach to health care in Mexico, where large numbers of people self-prescribe antibiotics, take only homeopathic medicine, or seek out mysterious vitamin injections. For many, only when all else fails do they go to a doctor, who may or may not be well prepared." The first person to die of this virus, for example, did not head for the hospital until her extremities had turned blue from lack of oxygen.
Fair or not, this is the sort of distinction Americans desperately need to feel less impotent in the face of a seemingly random threat. It's the capriciousness of this flu that has people so freaked out. After all, regular old flus kill thousands each year--but fatalities are concentrated among the very young, the very old, or those with underlying health conditions. That makes sense to us. But, at this point, most of us haven't been able to find a way to put ourselves into a separate category from the casualties of swine flu, and our brains can't take the strain.
It's a bit like what happens when some middle-class blonde cherub gets swiped by a stranger. All of America--or at least cable news watchers--goes berzerk and starts implanting tracking chips in their kids, because the randomness of the crime makes them fear that this could happen to them. By contrast, we don't worry so much about the vastly higher number of less affluent, less telegenic kids who go missing each year, because that too makes sense to us. We shrug and think: Oh, they live in bad homes or bad neighborhoods that make their lives fundamentally riskier than ours.
In scary times, people need a sense of control or at least order. If we can blame Mexico's woes on its unconventional health care practices, then we can comfort ourselves that, even if we contract this flu, we will have the sense to get to a doctor asap.