The topic of swine flu is getting nudged from the front page by stories that are actually and quantifiably big. For the moment, the networks are shedding the bold graphics and thriller-movie music that underlines the fact that this news story is going to frighten us to the core. Presumably Afghanistan's lone pig is out of quarantine. Hotels in Mexico are opening their arms, offering deals that are almost ludicrous in their generosity and desperation. But questions remain about what we are supposed to do with the panic of the last few weeks: whether we shelve our mass hysteria until fall flu season, when some experts predict the pandemic potential will go fully global, or whether we retreat back into our comfort zone and ignore the inevitability that another crisis is bound to thoroughly unglue us. It will deprive us of sleep, make us mistrustful of fellow citizens (particularly ones who are coughing on planes), cause us to cancel our vacations, lock our children inside encouraging them to watch as much TV as they can stand, second guess our own otherwise sound judgment and worry ourselves literally sick.
It could be these fears that damage us most of all. It is exhausting to come out on the other side of a crisis, shaking our head and asking, "What was all the fuss about? "And yet I have to wonder: is it worthwhile to be -- or feel -- prepared? Is it best to control whatever we think we can control? Or is it better to be detached, trust fate, and realize that prevention in a world where things happen and many of them are bad, is not remotely possible?
I have bought into the hysteria in the past. I still have three six-packs of duct tape from some perceived crisis passed- perhaps Y2K. It took our family two years to eat all the jarred pasta sauce we had bought for that non-disaster, but the dry milk was quickly rendered non-effective by mice in the basement. At some other point, the threat of biological attack seemed clear and present -- especially when a mail sorting machine at a US Post Office nine blocks from my apartment was found to be contaminated with anthrax spores. I assembled a readiness kit drawn largely from an article by Barbara Carton in the Wall Street Journal in October, 2001. The mothers at school were passing it around (we were a few blocks from the towers and many of us saw the planes go overhead that morning), and my copy is still folded up as it was the day a friend left it in my parent mailbox, my name written on the back.
The items mentioned as necessities by various experts, including one from the American Civil Defense Association, and entrepreneurs specializing in preparedness, form the core of my kit. Three weeks ago, after returning from Texas the day before the first US death in that state from swine flu, I dragged it out from cold storage. It's a small, frankly ominous-looking duffel bag. Shortwave radio -- check. Functioning batteries, nope. Vinyl poncho. Check. Swiss Army knife. Check. Storm-proof matches. Huh? Check. Lantern-style flashlight. Check. Functioning battery, nope. And on it goes. Trail mix or other high energy food. Are you kidding? Long, long gone.
Other crises, featuring other experts fueling my panic, have inspired other items in my doomsday collection. A carbon filtered water bottle. An envelope with cash. Empty now, though it did last longer than the power bars. During the H5N1 scare, I stocked up on Tamiflu, one course for every member of my family. It has expired. The fact that I had four boxes of it still makes me cringe. All experts agree that hoarding antibiotics may deprive a needy patient their dose during a shortage if a real crisis breaks out.
The word here is "if". The Imperial College in London projects one in three of the world's people could become infected with H1N1 come flu season. The World Health Organization confirmed today 5,251 cases around the world. The WHO's study suggests that swine flu could kill four in every one thousand infected people. If that were lottery odds, I would buy a couple of tickets. But for now, I am booking a trip to Mexico. The hotel is offering to pay our airfare. Come if you dare, they are saying, nearly begging, and today, I do. I'm putting the Tamiflu back in the bag, sticking it behind the winter coats and the back-up vacuum cleaner. I hope I won't be taking inventory again in the fall, but I'm fairly sure in due time, I will be. It seems at once foolish and responsible, drastic and necessary, silly and sensible, over-the-top and restrained. A crisis is never resolved from panic, and no one can predict what the next one will be that keeps us awake after hours, watching cable news until we can take the apocalyptic music no more. But I'll have the waterproof matches at the ready, should the water rise and the lights go out.