If your country had thousands of cases of a potentially fatal disease, spread by mosquitoes, would you panic? Not if you lived in the US, apparently. Last year there were over 4200 cases of West Nile virus infections with 177 deaths. I don’t remember panic gripping the nation. So I had to laugh when Canadian public health officials tell their citizens that with a particularly bad West Nile Virus (WNV) season underway south of the border, “There is no need to panic”:
“There’s no need to panic,” Jean Riverin, a [Public Health Agency of Canada] spokesperson, told CBC News. “Many variables need to be taken into account.”
He said that although certain provinces, such as Manitoba, have had a surge in cases in recent weeks, many parts of the country, such as Ontario and Quebec, have to date not reported any.
“It could be a good sign,” said Riverin.To date, there are 25 cases of the mosquito-borne disease in Manitoba and four in Saskatchewan. In 2006, there were 151 total cases in Canada, with 50 in Manitoba, 42 in Ontario, 39 in Alberta, 19 in Saskatchewan and one in Quebec. There were two deaths nationally. (MSN.CBC)
Let’s parse this. If there weren’t many variables to take into account, would this then be a need to panic? If Canada were having a worse season than last year, would there be a need to panic? In fact, is there ever a need to panic? Wikipedia has a serviceable definition of a panic as “the primal urge to run and hide in the face of imminent danger. It is a sudden fear which dominates or replaces thinking and often affects groups of people or animals.” Not a good thing, having an irrational fear replace thinking. It happens, of course. But it is rare. Rare, that is, except in the lexicon of public health officials who have an irrational fear that the public will panic. This irrational notion of public health officials everywhere (not just in Canada, unfortunately), dominates and replaces their thinking, affecting them in groups (called bureaucracies).
Even more unfortunate is the probable source of this irrational fear of irrational fear by public health officials: a reflexive lack of respect for the reasonableness and good sense of ordinary people confronted with a threat properly explained to them. Rather than provide a proper explanation (which the officials are convinced the public can’t understand) and to head of the inevitable panic, the threat is not properly explained, but spun, minimized and conjured away.
Departments of Public Health are misnamed. They should be called Departments of Public Reassurance. Maybe if we put them together with the “homeland security” departments, whose modus operandi is to keep us perpetually scared, we could average them and like Goldilocks, things would come out “just right.”