…by Meg White
The place Meg puts the stuff she wrote
Pig Flu Panicdemic! A Ground-Zero Report from Chicago

by Meg White

Don’t let this get out, but I live in a city with pig flu. Don’t worry though, the Centers for Disease swine flu anyone?Control and Prevention has issued a statement saying you can’t get sick from reading this article.

OK, not really. But I thought I would try to assuage the overblown fears of the people The New York Times calls the “worried well,” people who don’t display any flu symptoms but are crowding emergency rooms demanding to be tested anyway.

There are, as of this afternoon, 54 probable or confirmed cases of Influenza A(H1N1), or swine flu, in Illinois. Three of those cases are confirmed (two in my fair city of Chicago, one in DuPage County). Three Chicago public schools are closed. The number of cases will undoubtedly rise before this story is published.

Those are the numbers. But how many surgical masks have I seen on the streets of sweet home Chicago?

Exactly zero.

In fact, none of my friends or coworkers has seen those iconic face masks on the streets of Chicago since this whole thing began. The restaurant I went to for dinner last night was packed, and the patrons were more focused on the triple-overtime Bulls game than any impending pandemic. Granted, I was sure to take a trip to the bathroom and scrub my hands vigilantly before eating.

The lack of face masks in Chicago is certainly not a fashion thing. Though we have our fair share of snappy dressers, any casual observer who happens to be in Chicago for one of our famous sideways snowstorms could see we’re not slaves to fashion.

Maybe we’re less concerned because, after all, we’re Midwesterners. We don’t like touching strangers in the first place. This flu gives us an excellent reason to avoid uncomfortable hugs and handshakes.

Perhaps it’s because Chicago is historically steeped in the icky stuff that comes with the commercial processing of pork?

Or maybe it’s because the efficacy of surgical masks is apparently in doubt? In “The City That Works,” we are all-too-well-acquainted with stuff not working.

For example, the neighborhood that houses BuzzFlash HQ had a total blackout this morning. When we learned the power wasn’t likely to be restored anytime soon, we trekked back to our respective domiciles to work from home.

The Blue Line train I took from the office was crowded with travelers coming from O’Hare International Airport. No facemasks, but plenty of luggage.  I got off at what is arguably the busiest El station in Chicago, Jackson, to transfer to the Red Line. The next car I got on was instead crowded with Cubs fans heading to Wrigleyville for a day game, surrounded by hundreds of others, who presumably would not be wearing masks either.

At one point in my commute, I took a sip from my water bottle, and part of it “went down the wrong tube,” triggering a coughing fit. No one seemed to take note.

The May Day rally in Union Park, an annual event calling for labor rights and fair immigration policy, was not canceled, and the accompanying protest march to Daley Plaza in downtown Chicago apparently went off without a hitch.

The fact is, around 36,000 people die of influenza each year in this country. Not bird flu, not SARS, not pig flu; regular old influenza. It may turn out that H1N1 is the end of civilization as we know it, but it’s far more likely that this will be like most other flu seasons, just with a frighteningly catchy nickname.

Be it pragmatism or toughness, Chicagoans seem to be taking the panicdemic in stride. And I think that China, Russia, Egypt and the Huffington Post could learn a lot from us. In fact, the local news media was actually praised by government emergency preparedness officials during a briefing on the local swine flu situation, according to a recent Chicago Public Radio report. No screaming headlines here.

The national media is getting a lot of (well-deserved) flack for their panicdemic coverage, but each of us has a responsibility to remain calm and keep things in perspective. And it’s hard to take deep breaths with one of those masks on.


Photo courtesy of Ben Chau.

Originaly published at BuzzFlash.com.

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