Last, it was spinach. A few people across the country got very sick, and a baby died – the only thing they all had in common was the consumption of spinach. Suddenly, grocery stores were bereft of spinach, and newscasters with serious faces warned of a spinach-sickness crisis. A small national panic ensued. A few years before, a similar situation occurred with beef, as a result of the Mad Cow Disease scare. Between the two, Bird Flu had its moment in the sun, slandering pigeons everywhere.
Today, it’s swine. While few in the U.S. have actually died of Swine Flu, the media has been having a field day with the illness, which is thought to have originated in Mexico. For a while, people could talk of nothing else, especially in San Diego, separated as it is from Mexico by only a few border patrol officers and a language barrier. Newscaster’s warnings were dire, and Midwestern mothers were frantically sending care packages of hand sanitizer to offspring in California (or maybe that’s just me).
Clearly there is something feeding this frenzy, and the epidemic is panic, not flu. This craving for national drama is not new. Since the advent of public communication, newspapers have been sending people into frenzies. If there is something potentially life-threatening to learn about, then people read more news, and media moguls make more money. There are only a few stories better, and more gripping, than a possible pandemic story.
There was an article in The New Yorker last week about Parrot Fever, the epidemic that was all the rage in the 1930’s. The story of the Parrot Fever was so similar to that of the Swine Flu that I had to read it twice.
“Nobody had ever heard of it before,” reads the article, describing the illness, “It lurked in American homes. It came from afar. It was invisible. It might kill you. It made a very good story.”
Sound familiar? As much as we think we may have grown through history, we are still just as gullible and ready for some good, old-fashioned national alarm. What better way to bring everyone together, huh? Here in San Diego, the limelight of this particular epidemic shone brightest, bathed as we were in the national spotlight. Interestingly, the ratio of pigs to people in the City of San Diego is quite low, and the vilified swine has yet to make an appearance in my neighborhood.
The parrots were equally vilified in the 1930’s, and people with pet parrots were urged to kill them. U.S. Navy sailors were actually ordered to cast their pet parrots into the sea. (This may have marked the death of the iconic figure of the sailor with a parrot on his shoulder.) I haven’t heard anything quite so drastic about pigs, but Mexico has been getting an awfully bad rap since the swine flu news broke. We may not be throwing pigs into the sea, but the Mexican tourism industry was briefly flushed down the toilet.
Just as quickly as it began, the panic ended, and was reversed. Soon jokes about Parrot Fever abounded, and the media again was the purveyor. Anyone who has seen the recently widely emailed photo of a child kissing a pig knows that the same is coming true of the Swine Flu. As quickly as the terror-making story arrives, it leaves, replaced by newer, fresher news and jokes.
Now, in the age of radio, television, Internet, twittering (what is that, anyway?) and live-streaming videos, information is so abundant that it is difficult to not get lost in the deluge. A national alarm is easier to start than ever before, and most often quicker to fade out. The natural human search for novelty can mean, for a malady-seeking republic of hypochondriacs, a new illness fad every week. This is not to say that these illnesses are not real, they are, but to acknowledge that they are highly exaggerated. The real pandemic (the one that we have all been awaiting and predicting in a series of bad made-for-TV movies) will not come from a foreign germ, but from the panicking fever of human frenzy. And the national media will be stirring the pot.