Pandemic porn is even a genre in literature and film, and it has unfortunately shaped public attitudes toward the real thing. When H1N1 hit us four years ago, the media response reminded me of an old Charles Addams cartoon: A Patent Office bureaucrat stands pointing a strange kind of weapon out an open window. He looks scornfully at the inventor and says, “Death ray, fiddlesticks! It doesn’t even slow them down.”
The failure of H1N1 to kill millions (not to mention the absence of zombies in the streets) was a severe blow to global health in general—a blow based not on scientific fact, but on the stupid entertainments of Hollywood.
In the early years of this blog I ran into a lot of that “omygod we’re all gonna die” attitude. People were stocking up on food and water to endure months of isolation in their homes, fighting off their less-provident neighbours. It was remarkably like the fallout-shelter debates of my youth in the 1950s and 60s.
Granted, everyone should be ready to live for a few days off the water and power grid in a disaster, but this was ridiculous. After all, we’re living in at least two ongoing pandemics right now: the 7th cholera pandemic, which began in Peru in 1991, and the HIV/AIDS pandemic, which began in the early 1980s. Neither, alas, shows much sign of abating, but somehow we soldier on through them. In fact, we pay them entirely too little attention, just as we ignore the millions of children who die of diarrhea and pneumonia every year.