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Jewish World Review
May 1, 2009
/ 7 Iyar 5769
The White House, commendably, seems to be trying to quiet the hysteria
building around swine flu, but apparently the vice president didn't get
the memo. Thursday, Vice President Joe Biden told Americans to stay out
of airplanes, subways and other "confined spaces" on NBC's "Today Show."
When asked whether he'd advise members of his family against traveling
to Mexico, he offered this: "It's not just going into Mexico. If you're
anyplace in a confined aircraft and one person sneezes, it goes all the
way through the aircraft. . That's me. I would not be at this point, if
they had another way of transportation, suggesting they ride the
The vice president's office spent the rest of the day trying to downplay
the boss's irresponsible comments. Biden's staff claims the vice
president was telling family members: "If they are sick, they should
avoid airplanes and other confined public spaces, such as subways." But
the fact is, words matter and that is not what Biden said on TV. He
wasn't telling sick people to stay home; he was instructing healthy
people to do so out of simple, ignorant fear.
It's one thing for cable news whose business model depends on
whipping up public frenzy to drive ratings to behave irresponsibly.
It's quite another for the vice president to do so. Biden's
foot-in-mouth disease could turn out to be more dangerous to Americans
than the H1N1 virus.
At this point, swine flu is only a theoretical danger to most of us. The
cases in the U.S. so far have been mild, and according to most experts
there is little reason to believe this will change. Tens of thousands of
Americans die every year from the flu, and yet the media and Joe Biden
can't help but spread panic about swine flu, which has killed one person
here in America so far.
But what would happen if the public decided to take the vice president's
advice and stay off public transportation? We have actual experience on
this front and know the consequences. The anxiety that kept people off
airplanes and generally frightened people into staying home after the
9/11 attack made it difficult to recover from a mild recession in 2001
and that was at a time when we had a relatively healthy economy.
Imagine what would happen in the U.S. if similar fears were to drive
Americans into their bunkers now when we are in the midst of the worst
recession in almost 30 years? GDP declined 6.1 percent in the first
quarter 2009, following a decline of 6.3 percent the previous quarter.
Can you guess what would happen to the American economy if everyone
stayed home for the next three months?
We are all going to die sometime and from some cause, natural or
otherwise. In 2005, the last year for which data are available, more
than 45,000 Americans died from automobile accidents, and nearly 20,000
died from simple falls of one sort or another. Should we never step foot
in a car or bathtub again for fear it might kill us?
Communicable diseases are scary. But common sense and good hygiene are
the best protection. This is not 1918 when the so-called Spanish flu,
which may well have been a variant of swine flu killed more 50
million people worldwide. We have antibiotics and antiviral drugs.
People are more educated and understand how disease spreads. And we have
ways to communicate real threats when they occur, and to do so almost
But we also have the ability to spread misinformation and terror more
broadly than at any time in history. The media make matters worse by
screaming headlines and nonstop cable coverage on each new case that
breaks out. This is the time for cool heads and genuine leadership.
President Obama has shown both. Unfortunately, his second-in-command
hasn't. Perhaps the most constructive thing the White House could do
until swine flu blows over is quarantine the vice president.
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JWR contributor Linda Chavez is President of the Center for Equal Opportunity. Her latest book is "Betrayal: How Union Bosses Shake Down Their Members and Corrupt American Politics". (Click HERE to purchase. Sales help fund JWR.)
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