The war of words – and the taking of sides in a predictable “us versus them” battle -- has begun as the world mobilizes to fight the spread of swine flu. Our success in educating world citizens and engaging governments to put collective interest first depends on creating trust and cooperation. Blame and fear-mongering are counter-productive in the effort to stem panic and encourage proven behaviors that protect personal and public health and minimize sickness and death.
Swine flu is a textbook example of “the perfect storm” … when individual events combine to aggravate a situation and increase its danger and impact by multiples. In the case of swine flu (H1N1 virus), we are witnessing globalization, unconscious bias, and the need for systemic action to create more inclusive and equitable societal and organizational cultures.
As you can see from the graph below, swine flu becomes the intersection of a wide array of economic, psychological, emotional, linguistic, and health prevention and access forces. When seen as a totality, it is easy to understand how our fears (both rational and irrational) can easily overwhelm us, especially if they are stoked by pundits eager to use the swine flu as an opportunity to rage and rant against illegal immigration and demand closure of our borders.
Decoding the Swine Flu (see graph above)
Globalization & Immigration Patterns
The rapid movement of people and goods around the globe means both opportunities for profit and commerce, but also vulnerabilities, exposure, and risks to health and social stability. There is no consensus among health experts the ultimate impact of swine flu. It is undeniably a global issue.
Xenophobia and Fear of “the Other”
We live in a political, economic, and sociocultural environment that pathologizes people with different languages, customs, appearances, diets, and religious beliefs. Put simply, we get our guard up and fear others who we perceive to be threat to our “way of life.” When worldviews collide, it is a long a painful journey for the dominant culture to find comfortable avenues for assimilating and appreciating what other cultures offer. The spread of a virus helps unglue the important points of connection we seek to build in our global community.
The United States remains an isolated outpost of exceptionalism when it comes to making a national commitment to multilingualism. The motto of the European Union is “Unity in Diversity” which recognizes that multilingualism sits at the heart of their solidarity. The United States continues to struggle with the fear that our national identity will somehow be undone by widespread multilingualism. I am a firm believer that our national identity will be enhanced and strengthened by greater language fluency.
24/7 News Cycle & Media Alarmism
A vigilant media is a terrific asset in informing the public and mobilizing a productive response. However, in this age of infotainment we are already seeing the downside of media alarmism and the media’s treatment of the spread of swine flu as a hook to sustain viewer interest to increase sponsorship and advertising revenues. With so many hours of broadcasting to fill, the opportunity to report inaccurate information or to focus public attention on trivial issues in an effort to sustain a large viewing audience increases exponentially.
Annual Flu Death Rate
Pandemics are not new. Outbreaks are predicted and expected every few decades. Every year, flu outbreaks result in nearly 40,000 deaths. The U.S. experienced a mild flu season this past winter. Sometimes, a mild flu season can lead to complacency.
Health Disparities in the U.S. & Other Countries
Billions of people around the world lack access to basic health services, much less health insurance and the ability to pay for healthcare. In the case of swine flu, much of the world remains unable to protect themselves, their families and the communities from infection. In addition, culturally appropriate health services are essential ingredients in overcoming health disparities due to cultural, racial or ethnic differences. Healthcare practitioners are becoming increasingly aware that cultural, historical, and demographic factors impact health status and individual and governmental responses to illness and treatment.
Health Literacy in the United States
At Cook Ross, we believe that every single human being is entitled to basic human rights including access to quality healthcare, public education, adequate nutrition, and safe shelter. No human being is illegal. These rights are the key to not only our survival but our global growth and prosperity.
While it is easy to see how the media and the Internet have enabled health agencies to spot and begin tracking emerging viruses much sooner, it is important to recognize the billions of individuals across the globe who live in poverty and have limited access to both information and the means to act upon it.
Preventative Health and Hygiene
Different standards for hygiene exist across cultures, whether it comes to access to clean water for hand washing, proximity of animals to people, or different standards of personal care and food preparation. Hygiene has traditionally become a club used to bludgeon people from other cultures. Finding other people from exotic locales to be dirty and unclean is a tired old routine that provides a convenient justification for our fears of others.
The spread of swine flu provides many opportunities for us to examine both public policy and personal beliefs. Failing to appreciate the complexity of all the factors that contribute to our fear and discomfort with the swine flu outbreak leads us to oversimplistic solutions and missed opportunities to reflect on our individual and collective fears. Swine flu triggers deep psychological responses, hidden biases, and primal fears. In this context, we are reminded why we should all react with seriousness, careful thinking, and patience in determining responses.