The human capacity for self-distraction is astonishing.

In terms of impacts on human lives, the current outbreak of Swine Flu in North America is minimal compared to hundreds of other issues. This morning we had the remarkable sight of the US Homeland Security Secretary dolefully intoning that Americans would inevitably die from Swine Flu.

Except, Americans will inevitably die from flu any time. Whether it is one specific strain of flu or another would, particularly to the victims, seem to be moot. Particularly elderly victims, many in nursing homes, whose deaths are frequently attributed to flu in the same way that police tend to blame motor vehicle accidents on speed i.e. because it’s a convenient thing to write on the form.

The US Homeland Security Department in fact would save far more lives if it directed some of the resources now being allocated to fighting Swine Flu to gun control. Firearms will account for thousands of deaths in US in the course of this year. Motor vehicle accidents will take plenty of Americans as well. One could go on. Breast cancer. Falls in the elderly. SIDS.

All real priorities but Swine Flu — the pig link is so compelling isn’t it — gets the attention, despite accounting for fewer deaths than a week’s road toll.

Predictably, politicians here have seized on the opportunity to look simultaneously caring but stern, and assure voters that they’ll be protected. Here there has been talk of detention powers – seemingly the inevitable Australia response – to make sure we remain Swine Flu free. God help any boat people landing on Christmas Island while running a fever. And we can’t control that nationalistic instinct, can we — we have the biggest Tamiflu stockpiles in the world, according to Nicola Roxon. Once again, we’re ahead of the curve and leading the world. To paraphrase Wayne Swan, every Health Minister in the world would gladly swap places with us.

Egging the politicians on has been the mainstream media, which has led every bulletin with the latest trivial update on the death toll (or, as it was rendered in the SMH yesterday as the first doubts were cast on the hype, “probably deaths”). Plagues sell papers, of course, and what better way to get those eyeballs locked back in than to spread panic and suggest I Am Legend is just around the corner.

The World Health Organisation put paid to some of the more hysterical coverage today by saying there had only been seven confirmed deaths. Let’s see if that takes the panic-stricken edge off the some of the coverage, which seems aimed solely at stoking public concern rather than accurately informing the public.

Peter Fray

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