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Don't Panic

by Stephen Lautens


March 21, 2003

(NOTE: Here is an example of how useful a crystal ball would be to a columnist. SARS of course ended up claiming several dozen lives in Toronto, which was a tragedy, but the experts still contend that the "man on the street" hysteria was still far out of proportion to the risk to the average person. SARS apparently has also hit several large Amercian cities, but there has been little publicity - on purpose - because they don't want to create the same hysteria and damage to their economies as was suffered by Toronto. I think the "Don't Panic" message is stil valid, although I might now add "...yet".)

Run for the hills! Board up the windows! Charge the inhalers! Lay in a fresh supply of Echinacea! They’ve found a new disease to scare us silly.

In case you’ve missed it, it’s called "Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome". Apparently this catchy name was given to it to let us know the disease is in fact both severe and acute. And although it is not my policy to make light of any disease (especially ones that are both severe and acute), the media has been falling all over itself to use it to scare the willies out of us.

Maybe it’s just the times, but it seems like nothing can happen anymore without someone saying it threatens the very end of civilization and the fate of the human race. There are of course things that we should be worried about severely screwing things up for all of us - like war. But most things just aren’t in the same league.

For example, after splashing it all over the media for a week, as I write this they are now reporting only four confirmed cases in Canada of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome. That hasn’t prevented one particular Canadian newspaper from calling it an "epidemic". Now the bubonic plague - with 20 million dead in the 14th century - that was an epidemic. It sure would have sold newspapers too - if they had been invented, and everyone who might read them wasn’t already dead.

This new disease has pretty much pushed the West Nile Virus off the front pages. West Nile used to be the favourite new alarmist disease. It wasn’t that long ago that people were told to guard themselves against this new health threat by making yourself unappealing to mosquitoes. Unfortunately, Canadians are mosquitoes’ favourite food. We were helpfully told to drain all standing water to get rid of the danger. That would include about three-quarters of the country, since we’re soggy for the better part of the year.

From the natural to the man made, a little while ago you couldn’t turn on the TV without some building being evacuated because some yokel found suspicious white powder in their home or workplace that they feared to be anthrax. One office was evacuated because someone panicked when he found - I kid you not - a suspicious white powder in the office kitchen next to the jar of coffee creamer. On further analysis, it unexpectedly turned out to be coffee creamer.

Nonetheless, the US Department of Homeland Security has everyone going out to Home Depot to buy plastic wrap to seal their homes against the threat of Iraqi biological weapons - which at the moment appears to consist of a couple of kites with used Kleenex tied to their tails.

Diseases are no laughing matter if you find yourself sick with one, but you’ll have to pardon me if I don’t give in to the panic and hysteria we manufacture to make everything seem like a bigger deal than it is. Maybe it’s because I remember the hoo-ha over Legionnaire’s Disease and Swine Flu.

You can’t live your life hiding under the bed, or wearing a Michael Jackson surgical mask.

Besides we have bigger things to worry about. Like when those killer bees are finally going to get here.

© Stephen Lautens 2003

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