Neuron Culture

In a post titled “Dead, Your Majesty,” H5N1, Crof ponders why we scramble to deal with swine flu while ignoring other problems ranging from cancer to the 3000 children a day who die of malaria in Africa :

Most of us are comfortably settled in rich industrial countries where problems like TB and AIDS are rarely in the news. Zimbabwe, like our own homeless, is a deplorable problem…but not our problem. We’d prefer to focus, via high-speed internet connections, on a conjectural disaster instead of the many real disasters killing people somewhere else.

If a thousand people died in the US tomorrow from swine flu, the country would go beyond a mere war footing. Three hundred million people would turn all their efforts to preventing death #1001, while ignoring routine deaths from cancer, heart disease, auto accidents, and gunshots.

Is it a North-South problem? Maybe a black-white problem? That’s probably part of it. As La Rochefoucauld cynically observed 300 years ago, “We always find the strength to bear the misfortunes of others.” If the others aren’t our colour, or religion, or class, or nationality, their misfortunes are very bearable indeed.

But it may also be, in part, a cultural or even psychological problem. Dr. Philip Alcabes, in his recent book Dread, points out the difference in the way we respond to “new” diseases and whatever is endemic: Endemic is just the way things are, but when a new disease turns up, someone’s to blame for it…usually the victims.

So the Chinese and some Americans blame the Mexicans for it. The Mexicans blame industrial pig farms for it. If H1N1 had broken out first in Canada, we’d be catching flak for our slovenly hygiene and socialist healthcare system.

A wiser response would be to consider why we think we can protect ourselves by attacking others, and to ask whether such a response may even expose us to greater danger.

If it’s all the fault of someone’s else’s lousy hygiene or corporate greed or simple nationality, we excuse ourselves from thinking about the social and cultural conditions that we’re comfortable with — even if they set us up for being the next fatality.

The post’s title is from a passage in Bleak House, when Jo, the streetsweeper, dies of smallpox:

Dead, your Majesty. Dead, my lords and gentlemen. Dead, Right Reverends and Wrong Reverends of every order. Dead, men and women, born with Heavenly compassion in your hearts. And dying thus around us every day.

Crof doesn’t simply wring his hands and show us a bleeding heart. He’s interested in what our response to this swine flu outbreak (Sorry, I’m not going with the industry-driven name change) says about how ready we are, whether for a flu pandemic or the expansion of the infectious diseases that are ravaging Africa but have not yet broken out elsewhere:

Faced with a potential pandemic, we are already shrugging it off as a “false alarm,” but it’s actually an undeserved dress rehearsal. A minor new virus has tested us and found us (mostly) wanting. We’ve done some things right, and many things wrong. But we seem to be escaping with just a bad scare.

If we learn from our mistakes, and act wisely, we’ll be ready for the next attack. If we laugh at H1N1, in the next attack our children, like Jo, will be dying around us every day…not just from some exotic influenza, but from TB, HIV/AIDS, and all the wretched endemic diseases that we still take for granted.