My Swine Flu Dilemma, or Why You Shouldn’t Write A Novel About An Epidemic

originally posted May 12, 2009

I tell myself that I’m not really a hypochondriac.

Still, because my first novel dealt with a fictional town that tries to quarantine itself from the 1918 influenza epidemic, I’ve developed a bit of fatalism about the flu. Surely my book has tempted the gods, and the next flu pandemic (which most health experts agree is inevitable) will come looking for me in particular. I can already visualize the obituary headline: Writer of Flu Novel Dies from Flu in Ironic Tragedy.

A couple of weeks ago, with stories about swine flu being updated every hour, I had a dilemma. I was scheduled to fly from Atlanta to Los Angeles, along with wife, son, and two generations of my in-laws, for a family reunion. At the time, Southern California was one of the few parts of America in which swine flu had made an appearance.  I felt relatively safe here in Georgia, but LA seemed somewhat borderline.  And airports – particularly major, international hubs like Hartsfield-Jackson and LAX – are hardly the safest places to be when nasty viruses are looking for new hosts.

Only hours before our flight was scheduled to depart, Vice President Joe Biden went on TV and made his now infamous comment about how no family members of his would be getting on an airplane anytime soon.  This did not ease my psyche.  I still wasn’t quite sure what my family and I should do, as it remained unclear whether the swine flu was about to take the next step toward outright pandemic.  Indeed, our decision was particularly puzzling because the flu seemed to be in this odd in-between stage.  It didn’t seem to be The Big One yet, but it did seem to have the potential.  If it did turn out to be The Big One – with hundreds of critically ill people in a number of cities overwhelming our physicians, hospitals, and then morgues – at least we’d have known what to do: stay home, slowly go through our supplies of canned goods, watch CNN and hope for better news soon. We weren’t at that point, thank goodness. The death toll in Mexico was scary, yes, but the infection rate here in the States was hardly severe enough to make us all shut-ins. Right?

Part of the problem is that a typical flu can incubate inside its hosts for a few hours or days, allowing us to infect others unknowingly. By the time you realize it’s The Big One, you’ve probably already caught it from a subway ride (or cross-country flight) on which no one was even coughing yet.

As a self-employed writer, it would be relatively easy for me to become a shut-in without anyone noticing, if not for that pesky family reunion. But most people have to balance concerns for their health with fears of being fired for skipping work, or the need to show up at the office so they can afford to pay the mortgage on the house they might rather be hiding in.

In the fall of 1918, the pandemic was exacerbated by the fact that the U.S. government, distracted by the Great War and wanting to maintain a confident home front, refused to acknowledge the flu’s severity until it was too late. In Philadelphia, just as the virus was beginning to attack the city, thousands of people attended a pro-war parade, cheering and sneezing on each other. Surely our government wouldn’t make similar mistakes today. But here in 2009, it was disturbing to see international health experts bickering according to their national interests: first European politicians advised their citizens not to travel to America, then the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention objected and said visitors have nothing to fear.

(Meanwhile, Russia and China, unhindered by messy things like Bills of Rights, a critical press, and due process, were already said to be considering quarantining foreign travelers.)

So what should I have done?  Fly to LA and chance it, or postpone the trip and be safe?

No one wants to look like Chicken Little. Telling your friends you can’t make it to the multiplex because you’d rather stay home and wait for the swine flu to vanish will cause your friends to think that you’re just avoiding them, or that you’re crazy. And blowing off a family reunion will lose major points with the in-laws.

During the period immediately after September 11, many of us were afraid to fly, but there was a certain patriotic machismo associated with heading back to the airport. Canceling our flights to Florida and avoiding public places would have been “letting the terrorists win.” But that logic doesn’t quite work when the villain is a virus. Avoiding LAX or a crowded theater when a dangerous illness lurks is hardly “letting the flu win.”

And so as Wolf Blitzer went on and on about the swine flu, most of us continued with our social and professional lives.  We simply hoped that our local grocery store clerk or the pizza delivery guy or our administrative assistant was not unknowingly harboring the virus.  What else could we do? Government advice to wash our hands frequently was little more than anyone’s mother would have recommended – and it was frighteningly similar to the advice handed down by our much less scientifically equipped experts in 1918.

The sad truth is that, despite a near-century of medical advancement, our attempts to conquer influenza remain somewhat blunted by the fact that it mutates so quickly; once virologists isolate the swine flu strain, they’ll need to create and then distribute a vaccine for it before the flu mutates once again.

The other sad truth is that, despite the myriad sociological lessons we can learn from the 1918 pandemic – about the need for strong and honest government leadership as well as individual civic responsibility – human nature hasn’t mutated much since then. Our interconnectedness, our belief in a free society in which citizens can come and go as they choose, our social instinct to appear blithe and unfazed rather than panicked and silly – these things continue to conspire against us.

Well, my family and I did fly to LA.  Despite having to deal with a somewhat cranky, jetlagged toddler who woke up at 4 AM every morning, all was well.  Much ado about nothing, I suppose, and two weeks later the swine flu stories have all but vanished from the press.  Maybe I was silly to worry, and am even sillier to admit it with this post.  It was hardly the same kind of dilemma as, say, standing guard with a rifle in front of a quarantined town and having to decide what to do about the possibly ill stranger walking toward you, but still, it felt weird.  And because bad influenzas that appear in the late spring have been known to lie dormant for a few months before returning with a vengeance in the fall (as happened in 1918), we all may find ourselves with similar dilemmas soon.

Not that I’m a hypochondriac or anything.