The World Health Organization (WHO) looks set to announce that the swine flu is now a global pandemic.
Whether it deserves to be a Stage 6 or Stage 5 pandemic it is already, in many parts of the world, a full-on panic.
While visiting China, Taiwan and Japan the last few weeks I found panic well underway.
It started with our entry to Shanghai almost three weeks ago. Before the plane docked at the gate a crew in bunny suits came on board and scanned everyone’s temperature. Anyone who failed the scan was given a second test.
We all passed, but not all do. New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin was quarantined for a week after my arrival, and never got to see the country. Once he was released from a Shanghai hotel headed to Australia.
Everywhere we went the last weeks we saw people wearing surgical masks. Everyone at the customs gates had them. So did nearly all food service workers. So too many ordinary people.
In Japan people were handing out free masks on the street. On our plane coming home one Japanese man wore his mask almost to the gate at Chicago.
There everything was quite different. There were no masks at customs and on our flight to Atlanta two men coughed constantly, yet no one paid them any mind.
The Wall Street Journal has taken to ridiculing the Chinese attitude, which is based on the SARS epidemic earlier this decade, contained by similar efforts. (SARS was also a much more deadly virus than the present swine flu strain.)
Between the oriental panic and occidental laissez-faire there lies a responsible policy. Even before this pandemic we were approaching a general vaccine for H1N5, the seasonal flu, and the same discovery process can be applied to H1N1 as well.
Meanwhile you can cover your coughs, wash your hands regularly, stay home if you have any flu symptoms, and support funding for efforts to track the flu’s spread.
The masks don’t work anyway.