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Pity the Poor Pigs

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This has been a tough time for Porky. Not content to let the animals wallow in their mud, the world is in a frenzy over an alleged epidemic that may have nothing at all to do with a life-threatening influenza.

According to the latest accounts about so-called swine flu, a few hundred Americans have been afflicted, but there has been only one death reported in the United States. Yet the rest of the world is in a tizzy. Guilty or not, pigs are being chopped up, condemned or quarantined. Moreover, Mexico, poor old Mexico, its borders already under siege by the anti-immigration nuts, is being threatened with a quarantine for allegedly harboring tainted swine despite the fact that it already has taken all the common sense steps necessary to cope with the problem.

The bottom line is that this isn't the time for the kind of panic and exaggeration uttered by radio noise-makers like Michael Savage. Reckless skeptics like him, for instance, ought to have read two op-ed page articles that appeared in the May 1 issue of the New York Times. They demonstrated the sober approach Mexico has taken to cope with the crisis circumventing the globe. Dr. Julio Frenk explained that approximately 10,000 Mexicans die from the effects of seasonal flu every year. But it is not an alarmist number, given the size of the country's population.

The dean of the Harvard School of Public Health and former Minister of Health in Mexico from 2000 to 2006, Frenk pointed out how advanced Mexico has been in coping with the overall effects of influenza. Keep in mind that most of the victims have been among the elderly or the very young "whose immune systems are not robust enough to fight off the virus.

"But this year" he wrote, "has been different. The Mexican disease surveillance system, a network of more than 11,000 hospitals, clinics and doctors' offices, picked up a minor but troubling trend in April. Across the nation of 110 million people, a handful of young adults had apparently died from influenza. An immediate investigation led, within a few hectic weeks, to the isolation and genetic sequencing of the microbe causing the illness. The experts' worst fear was confirmed: They were coping with a new kind of influenza virus."

What Frenk said was that Mexico is coping with the problem and its people are responding calmly. So enough of the absurdity about sealing our borders with Mexico. To get a better sense of how our neighbors to the south are coping, it might be useful to relax and digest a second article in the Times by the Mexican writer, David Lida titled "The Smile Behind the Mask."

When the pharmacies in Mexico City ran out of the anti-bacterial gel that are supposed to treat swine flu, Lida wrote, "I did what I usually do in moments of true frustration and anxiety. I went to a cantina. Many were closed, but one called El Jarrito which could be flatteringly described as a dive, remained open....The woman who served me a drink, lowered her mask to flash me a crooked tooth smile. Customers laughed, argued, played dominoes and lowered their masks to drink or eat." There was no 'woe is me.' The customers just lightened up. Maybe it was a lesson for all of us north of the border.

It was enough to have our usually calm and collected President lead off his televised nationwide news conference Wednesday night by cautioning the American people to observe ordinary rules of the road by protecting themselves during a flu epidemic. With nothing better to do, the comics and pundits poked fun at Joe Biden. But however awkwardly the Vice-President may have expressed himself the other morning, his advice to New Yorkers was well-intended when he advised viewers watching Matt Lauer on NBC's Today show to stay off the subways and cover their mouths when they felt a cough coming on.

We've gone through this kind of blah-blah before. But given the state of the nation, you'd think we'd have learned our lesson by now. That is, beware of the motor mouths who dominate the cable shows, so desperate for audience ratings that they will stoop to the most idiotic nonsense that offends reasonably intelligent viewers. Instead, we are subjected to a barrage of exaggeration that either is overwhelming or a distraction on a nightly basis. I sometimes wish for a voice like Mel Blanc's to cope with the likes of Wolf Blitzer and other cable television anchors who, given the opportunity, spread alarm far and wide.