Friday, November 6, 2009

H1N1: climate of fear

Other than the fact I used "climate" in my title, (clever, eh?) this post is not environmentally themed. But I can't help commenting on the H1N1 madness currently infecting the minds of way too many authority and media figures. As I see it, there are two problems.

Problem one: excessive media hype
News media is giving a disproportionate amount of attention to this issue. I do not think deaths from H1N1 should be taken lightly, and there are several important issues, such as the Aboriginal/H1N1 plight, that certainly deserve media attention. But it needs to be kept in perspective, or else it's called fear-mongering. For the better part of a year or more, this has been the top story almost everywhere I look, and it's getting ridiculous.

Surprise, surprise-- H1N1 made the front page today: one Manitoban may have died from it. According to one of four H1N1 articles in the Top News section, Manitoba's chief medical officer Dr. Joel Kettner said the fall H1N1 outbreak could possibly be more severe than last spring, when seven Manitobans died. Later in the article, Dr David Butler-Jones, Canada's chief public health officer, said "over the next few weeks we're going to see perhaps what we saw in June." I don't mean to downplay the death of the seven victims, but I don't find that to be an exceedingly high number.

While H1N1 is certainly a very important public health issue, featuring it time and time again on the news is not going to do anything to help the situation. This is an ethical struggle for journalists, who want to report on what people are interested in. But they have to realized that at a certain point, they're contributing to the frenzy they're reporting on.

Problem two: wait-list witch-hunt
Clearly related to problem one is the disproportionate (there's that word again...) amount of blame being directed at those who have had the vaccination shot and are not on the priority list. Apparently, these people are morally bankrupt scum-of-the-earth. Participants in this hate-fest include the media, health officials, and the general public.

Everyone seems to have gotten themselves into a tizzy about the Calgary Flames "jumping ahead" of children, the elderly, and all sorts of down-and-out priority list vaccine candidates. The decision to vaccinate the Flames came at a time when vaccination clinics were open to the public-- ie, while a priority list existed, (though I don't really understand why) anyone who wanted to was allowed to line up to get the shot. So while it's kind of unfair and elitist to have a private vaccine party for wealthy sports stars and their families, it does not merit the outcry of derision it has elicited, including the Alberta health agency firing two employees involved in the debacle. (Of course, from a PR perspective, they had no choice but to fire them.) The bottom line is that health officials need to get their act together when it comes to telling the public who can and can't get this shot. Once the priority list was enforced, I understand that in at least one Winnipeg clinic, there were flu shots to spare. So who exactly are they stealing from?

This column of Oct. 31 documented the author's trip to a flu shot clinic, where he confronted people in line who were not on the priority list. People have their reasons for not wanting to get sick and die. They want to be protected from what the media is portraying as a particularly horrific and devastating illness. It seems a little hypocritical to hype it up, then get mad at people responding to that hype.


  1. Classic media: get people riled up, then criticize them for getting riled up. Also a perfect way to turn one story into two!

  2. Newspapers should always be of reason and logic, not emotion. Unfortunately, the Winnipeg Free Press has started to realize that they can get more people reading as long as they are pandering to hearts instead of heads.

    Like you said, it is important to take deaths seriously, but papers like the Free Press won't tell the public that the mortality rate of the H1N1 flu has been similiar to that of the regular flu. Nor will they compare the H1N1 pandemic to previous pandemics in hopes of giving readers a little perspective; the 1918 Spanish influenza outbreak left more than 10% of the world's population dead in its wake.

  3. Thoughtful perspectives, Sandy - it's dangerous the way many people will just jump on the latest bandwagon and begin pointing fingers.