As health officials dealing with the swine flu outbreak are trying to walk a line between informing and alarming, I--as a recipient of their reports and warnings and an American living in Mexico--try to find the proper balance between sensible caution and overreaction. It's not easy. I seem to swing between the two in any given hour.
My husband and I live three hours from Mexico City, with our two sons, ages 12 and 10. On Saturday, the day after news of swine flu in Mexico City appeared on the Internet, I approached my husband with this statement: "You may think this is overreacting but I'm thinking maybe we should keep the boys out of school this coming week." To my surprise, my husband--who is not anything close to an alarmist--agreed that this was a wise step.
Even with his backing, I found myself deeply embarrassed when I called their teachers to tell them of our decision. I felt I needed to explain myself. I imagined rolled eyes on the other end of the call.
To overreact, in my mind, is to expose yourself as a wimp or a sap who has bought into the hype. I certainly don't want to be a Henny Penny.
I remember with a wince how my mother berated me as such after September 11th. I was scheduled to fly to my niece's wedding on September 20, with my then 4-year-old son, who was supposed to be the ring bearer. After much angst, I decided to go but didn't want to take my son; my niece understood, but my mother was terribly disappointed. "So you're worried about a terrorist attack, but you' went ahead and put in a swimming pool. The kids are much more likely to drown in that pool then get shot down in a plane."
Her conflating our swimming pool with a terrorist attack spun my head. I was furious and hardly spoke to her the whole wedding weekend. Why can't my concerns be respected? I thought. My view was that we all have our own threshold, which is going to be different than the next person's.
I later learned that my mother was right in her way. I wrote a piece for Parenting magazine about worrying that seems especially relevant today. Here is one excerpt:
"We naturally use our emotions as much or more than the facts when we decide what to be afraid of, or how afraid we will be," says David Ropeik, director of risk communication at the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis. There are common themes to what we humans choose to worry about. Ropeik says we lose more sleep over man-made risks (radiation from nuclear waste) than natural risks (radiation from the sun). We're more terrified when we're not in control (such as when we're flying) than when we are (driving ourselves and the kids in the car). We're more frightened of risks that are new (SARS) versus those we've lived with for a while (food poisoning). And whenever a threat gets a whirl through the media machine, it moves to the top of almost every parent's panic list. "We misperceive risks over and under what they are because of these prisms of emotions," he says.
Even though I recognize the wisdom and truth of this passage, it's difficult to keep my emotions in check. After we made the decision to keep the boys out of school, I was feeling fine--but then I got word that same afternoon that the Mexican government had canceled school through out the country. Instead of feeling vindicated, I was thoroughly alarmed that the situation was this dire. I suddenly developed a pit in my stomach and imagined all kinds of worst-case scenarios (closed borders, shortage of drugs, rioting and looting). I approached my husband with this statement: "You may think I'm overreacting but I'm thinking maybe we should all drive up to Texas and wait this out there."
This time my husband did think I was overreacting. He now believes that the press has overblown the situation and fueled a panic. As for me, I can't help but reflect on the movie "Empire of the Sun," in which the British family stays in war-torn China way too long, with dreadful consequences. "Why didn't they leave earlier," I thought to myself as the story unfolded. I don't ever want to have a similar regret in this present situation.
So now we're living in limbo--should we stay or should we go? As more people don surgical masks in our town, as more activities are canceled, as the WHO raises the pandemic threat level, I'm trying to keep my wits about me--comparing the down side of staying against the down side of leaving (the truth is that at this point we're more at risk on the highways than from swine flu). To determine our next move, we're keeping up with the news reports, trying to separate fact from rumor, helpful information from the not-so and, most importantly, good sense from the very human tendency to overreact.