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Wash Your Hands

A Commentary by Susan Estrich

Saturday, May 02, 2009

Now it's not just your mother telling you or the school nurse, but your president. Wash your hands. Cover your mouth. Don't go to school if you're sick -- that'll be tough to enforce!

And for goodness sake, take a deep breath. You, too, Mr. Vice President.

The vice president joined the meltdown when he suggested that he'd stay away from airplanes and subways. Easy to say, of course, when you have Air Force Two and a motorcade to meet it.

I'm trying to stay away from hysterics.

It is flu season. Never a great thing. A lot of people could get sick for two weeks -- if they don't get the antiviral medications -- or two days -- if they do. People who don't have access to health care, or have other illnesses to begin with, are obviously most at risk and need to take greatest care both in terms of precautions and prompt treatment. But thanks to policies put in place by the Bush administration (how's that for fair and balanced?), there's no run in the pharmacies on antiviral drugs, because the government effectively recalled the nation's supply so as to ensure availability to those who actually need treatment.

So long as bureaucracy doesn't slow delivery, we should be ready for what we're facing. This flu, thankfully, has not mutated into one of those deadly strains that turns your immune system against your body. If it does, you'll see me writing columns entitled, "Stay Home and Pray."

I know, more than 30,000 people die every year in a regular bad flu season. That is obviously terrible. But most of us don't spend much time worrying or obsessing about it. Quite the contrary. Many who should get shots barely remember to, notwithstanding constant reminders, or don't at all. In April, even though it wasn't flu season, there was a bad virus going around that left any number of people fighting viral pneumonia for weeks. Was it this flu? Another flu? Nameless, it came and went.

Not this one. It is important to be reminded of our vulnerability, to be tested on our preparedness, to see the value of research and planning, and to commit ourselves to do more. It is important to remember that "viral" marketing and messages are based on a deadly model that cannot be stopped by "closing" borders that don't exist. There are valuable lessons to be learned from this swine flu -- and God knows how many pig jokes -- but more of us are likely to be caught up in the panic than in the flu, and the cost of our fear could end up as high as the cost of the virus.

There's not much most of us can do to avoid swine flu other than what we're already doing: hand washing, as well as wringing; cough protection and avoidance; erring on the side of keeping the kids home. But there is a great deal we can do to avoid contributing to the panic.

Turn down the volume. We don't live in a remote village somewhere where our leaders are too busy fighting each other to see that the people have food or health care or Tamiflu. We can be well, and we should be grateful.

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