The swine flu hysteria
I spotted him outside our office in Delhi. An earnest looking young man, briefcase in hand, strode through the gathering downtown crush wearing a clunky white mask, his eyes darting from side to side. He looked straight out of a Robin Cook novel: a potential victim of a predatory, mutating virus on the loose in a big city. He also appeared to be a victim of the swine flu hysteria sweeping India these days.
Everywhere I go people are talking about the flu. It doesn't help that this is the 'flu season' in Delhi anyway when almost everybody is sneezing, coughing, feeling feverish or retching. When I caught a bug last week and stayed in, well-meaning friends called in to say that I should get tested for the flu. When I went to a neighbourhood clinic for a routine examination, the pretty receptionist reminded me that a few swine flu cases had been reported in the area where I live. I ran back home.
On return, I found television news agog with manic anchors spreading panic. A programme on the flu called itself Fear of the Unknown with an emotive visual of a glum looking father and son, presumably on their way to a testing facility. I wondered what was unknown about the flu; the programme gave me no answers. I picked up a newspaper and counted 21 stories about the flu; there were barely five stories on the impending drought. The hysteria was now threatening to disrupt my peace.
So I went back to work to be greeted by more talk about the flu. Then I found my inbox running over with emails about homeopathic and other remedies to keep the pandemic away from my door. My favourite: eat raw garlic, two to three times a day; eat raw onion; eat fresh raw ginger, two to three times a day. With the stink I would raise after having this potent prophylactic mix, I risked getting lynched, even if I manage to beat the flu.
Indians love hyperbole. So it is with the swine flu 'debate'. Authorities are asking people to avoid crowded places "during weekends". A Bollywood film unit has cancelled a shoot because the actors fear getting infected. A friend called from Pune whining that his bosses were asking him to go on business meetings wearing a mask. And the latest scare is about the main anti-flu drug having side effects, despite sensible doctors saying it is nothing much to worry about. Every such media-fuelled 'outbreak' is also an opportunity for shamans and scams: one channel is even reporting a "H1N1 mask scam". Now the authorities have shut down schools and colleges in Mumbai for a week after three flu deaths in the city. All over, the fear is legitimate; the response is exaggerated.
What is conveniently forgotten is that India is no stranger to vicious outbreaks of fell diseases. Four years ago, just one state - Uttar Pradesh - alone reported 1145 cases of Japanese encephalitis in a single month. A fourth of these patients - nearly 300 - died. But encephalitis in a badly governed, poor state was not sensational enough for saturation coverage. Not many of the patients had possibly ever travelled outside the village. Apart from its name, there was nothing remotely global about this outbreak.
The same year, a brain fever outbreak struck the capital, Delhi, and in just about two months, affected over 400 people. Forty eight of them died. To put things into perspective, just under two million people contract malaria in India every year. And tuberculosis kills 325,000 people here every year.
But swine flu with double digit deaths - undoubtedly this number will rise - in a month and a thousand-odd patients gets disproportionate media and attention because it is imported, and affects the more affluent among us, people who go abroad and come in contact with others. In a country where globalisation means nothing to over 70% of the people, the brouhaha over H1N1 is another example of the tyranny of the minority.