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.