Veracruz is Outbreak Ground Zero.
Red dots are cruise ports.
Swine Flu Media Impact
Last Monday morning the collective cruise industry said it had no intention of canceling any cruises to ports in Mexico. But by the end of the day they had cancelled all of them. What happened? The media was crazy with superlative speculation in breaking news stories all day about the Swine Flu crisis. By the end of the day they had provoked the kind of panic that rarely ends in anything good.
Now, I rarely venture into politics and never endorse either party - but as an American I reserve the right to question. I thought we elected Barack for reassurance and stability, not panic. As a former New Yorker whose next door neighbor was a Canter Fitzgerald bond trader (WTC: 101st floor) I am still upset about the Airforce One flyover. The administration says that was not Obama's fault and I believe them, but I won't let them off so easily for his Swine Flu response.
100 days ago Obama was chiding a Washington DC school for closing down for snow. Yesterday he encouraged schools to consider closing if they have suspected cases of the Swine Flu. Now, the very word "suspected" just begs for clarification, how do you know when you officially have a suspected case of Swine Flu? Our persuasive President incited several schools nationwide to close down completely. In one case the entire student body called in sick. Fort Worth just anounced every school in the county will close for two weeks. Never let a good crisis go to waste.
Is closing entire schools a justified precaution, or something else? Consider this American Heritage® Medical Dictionary definition: "Spontaneous, en masse development of identical physical or emotional symptoms among a group of individuals, as in a classroom of schoolchildren." That is the definition of mass hysteria.
In Queens a teenager developed flu symptoms and chose to stay home. By the end of the day his entire family showed traces of the Swine Flu, according to a New York tabloid. Sounds serious, right? According to thousands of media reports this New York State Swine Flu outbreak was news of the world! So, how did the most critically affected teen describe his disease?
"With a 101 degree fever it got so bad I couldn't even text!" Imagine the devastation of an entire American teen population not able to text. Today the entire family has fully recovered from what the paper divulged in the penultimate paragraph as basically mild flu symptoms. But the last paragraph read, "We were lucky... this time!"
Isn't that a great media word, "penultimate?" It sounds much more important than its actual definition, "next to last."
So, how balanced was the President's response and subsequent media coverage if we have had no native deaths but entire schools are already closing? In the vast majority of articles I read the speculation went straight to the worst possible outcome. Words like "deadly" "spreading" "epidemic" and "emergency" left qualifiers like "possible" and "worst-case scenario" in the dust. On CNN I heard the phrase "eminent pandemic" several times in one hour.
When the media jumps to conclusions the public bases it reactionary decisions on less than complete data. So, is that really a problem? Consider the American Swine Flu of 1976. It only killed one American, but the resulting vaccine killed hundreds of people and left 500 of them with Guillen Barre Syndrome, a complete breakdown of the central nervous system where sufferers require a managed coma with respirators and feeding tubes directly into their stomachs for up to a year.
Thankfully, Tuesday morning brought a taste of media self-reflection. Many editorials admitted what I have been saying since Sunday, that wallowing in rampant speculation and sensationalism about Swine Flu in the media is pushing the public's panic button.
My favorite line is from a Washington Times editorial today, "You have to give the medical bureaucrats and the media credit for chutzpah to think they can keep such thin soup on the panic menu." Less opinionated but more fact-based newspaper articles included "Flu infecting Marine is NOT Swine Flu" and "Two men in Los Angeles Coroner's Office NOT Swine Flu victims."
One of the funniest stories involves an AirTrans flight where all the passengers were quarantined for 40 minutes when two passengers exhibited flu-like symptoms. Final determination? They were drunk!
So, lets just chalk up Monday as the our nation's official "Swine Flu Mass Hysteria" day. Our media had you running like Manhattanites from Airforce One and that trailing F-16 fighter jet.
Royal Caribbean said the later decision to cancel all Mexico port calls until further notice was made "in an abundance of caution, and allows additional time to better understand the full impact of the Swine Flu."
Good for them. I think it is very prudent to err on the side of caution, and I especially agree with the "additional time to better understand" statement. But the cruise lines will not be able to simply eliminate all Mexico port stops for long without feeling a great deal of logistic and financial pain. They had to acquiesce this week due to panic by an underinformed clientele. But everyone in the industry from the cruise lines to crew members, travel agents and media people like myself are hoping that no future long-term decisions will be determined by mass hysteria rather than well-defined answers to the real questions we have today.
We need to wait for the jury to come in and that will probably take a week or more. Yes, this might be a very serious situation, but it might not. If it is not serious, it would be a tragedy if a mild flu turned into a social catastrophe solely because we couldn't resist the urge to panic.
Where will we be tomorrow, or even next week? Only time will tell. My gut still tells me this situation is being vastly overblown, but my psyche perceives that too many powerful muckety mucks like it that way. And if that is the case I am powerless to make a difference.
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