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In an enclosed space, facing the fear of infection

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People wait outside a mobile clinic to test for signs H1N1 virus, formerly referred to as swine flu, in Mexico City on April 30, 2009. REUTERS/Jorge Dan (Mexico Health Society), courtesy www.alertnet.org.
People wait outside a mobile clinic to test for signs of H1N1 virus, formerly referred to as swine flu, in Mexico City on April 30, 2009. REUTERS/Jorge Dan (Mexico Health Society), courtesy www.alertnet.org.

I’m on the subway and–though I’m ashamed to admit it–I’m afraid the woman next to me has swine flu. Since she sat down two stops ago, she’s been wheezing, each breath rasping with a sound like ripping fabric. Periodically she sneezes, sending tiny particles of spit into the air.

I inch away on the hard plastic seat until I can’t go any further. Now I’m intruding on the space of the man on my other side, who eyes me with alarm.

Like me, he’s probably thinking that every surface around us is coated in germs–after all, ¬†yesterday Vice President Joe Biden warned his family to avoid enclosed spaces because the risk of swine flu, also known as the H1N1 virus. “I would not be, at this point, if they had another way of transportation, suggesting they ride the subway,” Biden said.

It’s true that if I could afford a car, I wouldn’t be here, inhaling the tired, possibly polluted breath of strangers. I’ve taken public transportation every day for years, but now that phrases like “pandemic potential” have been tossed around, things seem different. As I go down the steps into the warm, damp subterranean air, I want to hold my breath.

According to the New York Times, many Americans, especially city dwellers, now face this “internal balancing act” between fear and precaution. How much is too much when it comes to protecting yourself? What’s safe and what’s over the top? ¬†Here at Oxfam, for example, our “pandemic preparedness team” has been activated, and we’re all getting periodic updates about the virus–while of course being urged not to panic.

But there’s a hint of paranoia in the air in Boston, one that leaves me feeling queasy for entirely non-health-related reasons. Last night in a taxi I heard a shrill-voiced radio commentator blaming the swine flu on “illegal immigrants,” saying ominously that she’d do what was necessary to protect her family. Internet rumors blame Mexicans allied with Al Qaeda, or “voodoo tribal people” in Florida, as the source of the virus, playing to our fears about infection coming from the poor, the marginalized, and the foreign. The current calls to seal the US-Mexico border do little to allay that feeling.

It makes me think of another subway encounter this week, before the swine flu started really making headlines. I got on and found myself face to (sort of) face with a person wrapped completely in protective gear. Man, woman, old, young: it was impossible to tell who lurked behind the coat, hat, gloves, sunglasses, scarf, and surgical mask. Obviously I had no idea why this person was dressed so defensively–it could have been flu fear, or it could have been someone whose immune system is so compromised that they have no safe alternative. But the overall effect was unnerving.

If that’s the kind of thing we have to do to protect ourselves–seal ourselves up completely and let our fear get the best of us–then I’d rather sit here and take the risk.

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  1.  avatarJenny Chung

    I can sympathize w/ your views Anna. Although I live in the burbs, it seems like a lot of people are a bit on edge about the swine flu including my family. (Frankly I’m still upset that many pigs are being slaughtered senselessly in Egypt bc of the paranoia). It’s strange though to see people react in such counterproductive ways such as the face masks and ER visits. And though it’s suggested that you clean your hands often, I found it amusing when I saw one woman carrying Purell like a badge of honor at the mall today.

    I know I may not be as smart as WHO, but I know that threat levels don’t work for me anymore or scare tactics for that matter (I guess many people forgot about the color coded terror alert system that was scraped, only to have this be put on yet another level of alertness that the public is just suppose to accept). I agree with your point of balancing fear and precaution, yet even with the 24 news cycle, some people will still believe what they want despite all the info and throw precaution out the door.

    On the up side, I actually plan on visiting Boston within the next few weeks along w/ NYC (bc of some accidental tears). Haven’t been to Boston for some time and I’m looking forward to the Duck tours :-)

    (Hope the “wisdom” of crowds will still be intact after all of this)

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  2.  avatarDusty Humes

    I agree–there seems to be so much overreaction (although i might not say that if it were my child who was sick), but it feels like a way to avoid facing much more concrete dangers (like poverty, violence, etc.) and an opportunity to use the unknown as a black hole into which we project our own fears of whatever feels dangerously “contagious”–immigrants or people with different customs. Its strange to me how this country can react so intensely to this and underreact to true emergencies like Katrina. Time to stay calm and not let emotions do the decision-making.

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  3. Anna Kramer

    Thanks to you both for the insightful comments. Jenny, you’re absolutely right about the counterproductive ways that people react, which almost cross the line into the ridiculous–in fact there was a story in the local news this weekend that some drugstores in Boston are actually running out of hand sanitizer because people are buying it up and hoarding it (speaking of Purell as a badge of honor). At a certain point, precaution goes to absurd lengths, not only in cities but everywhere (and don’t let this keep you from visiting Boston ,it’s great and probably no worse than anywhere else) ;)

    Dusty, I agree completely that the flu scare has, for some, become “a black hole into which we project our own fears” of the unknown. It’s logical to be afraid to some degree, but that fear can an avoidance tactic that keeps us from seeing the big picture, especially when we allow hysteria to overcome logic, as you say. And sadly, it’s not the first time we’ll do this… or the last.

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  4.  avatarJenny Chung

    I don’t know why hoarding Purell (or face masks) will give you any peace of mind except to show others how paranoid you really are (then again that’s no different than people hoarding Tamiflu during the Avian flu scare…guess the gov’t wasn’t too prepared w/ that one either and now they’re trying to make up for it now by causing mass hysteria).

    It’s strange though to see others react so primeval; the other day a woman I met at a forum refused to shake my hand, sure she could’ve just been racist (her husband was a former healthcare worker…lucky chap) but to think that I had “it” shows a level of ignorance I’ve never experience before in an upper middleclass suburb. I now realize that common sense is lost to so many when it comes to just illnesses in general; that they mostly affects people w/ poor or underdeveloped immune systems, young, old, people w/ HIV or AIDS; washing hands is a good precaution for ANY illness; and when you overstock medications and other over-the-counter products, you’re taking it away from others who might really need it.

    However, to end on a happier note, I do look forward to visiting Beantown :) I heard Cafe Vittoria has a great iced expresso :)

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