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Unlike humans, swine flu is indiscriminate

by Debito Arudou

The biggest news a few months ago, now affecting every prefecture in Japan, has blipped off our radar screens. For the time being.

I’m talking about the H1N1 swine flu virus that originated in Mexico, took wing across oceans and continents, and eventually settled down here despite our government’s panicky measures.

Time to learn some lessons. We need to prevent a public panic from once again causing discrimination against the ill.

H1N1 was first reported last March in Mexico, with an apparently high mortality rate. It was also newsworthy because for the first time we were charting a new virus from patient zero in real time.

But ideas spread faster than viruses. Once the former reached our fine land, Prime Minister Taro Aso, afraid of being seen as a “do-nothing” in the face of looming elections, turned uncharacteristically proactive — as in, taking measures against the outside world.

This is a government, remember, which institutes laws expressly targeting foreigners in the name of, quote, “effective prevention of infectious diseases and terrorism.” So, predictably, we prescribed hypochondriac policies against them.

Almost immediately our shores were scrubbed. Airports instituted (fortunately, pervasive and noninvasive) heat scanners to track cowls of fever. Ground staff donned violet spacesuits that, though not hermetic, were plenty intimidating. Whole countries were suddenly scarlet-lettered into no-go zones just because of a domestic case or two.

Conditions soon deteriorated. The first people diagnosed with H1NI in Japan were incoming foreign tourists. They were quarantined in hotels (not hospitals) with nothing but instant curry rice for company. Arriving international flights were grounded for hours while everyone was screened. The government forced international conferences to cancel because they might attract foreigners. Mainichi and Kyodo reported hospitals turning away feverish Japanese who happened to have foreign friends.

Just when it looked like we were going to go all SARS-scare again (when Japanese hotels in 2003 were refusing all foreigners just because one Taiwanese tourist caught that new variety of pneumonia), Golden Week intervened. Japanese returning from vacation imported contagion. It was no longer a “foreign” virus.

In a sense, good: That pre-empted pseudo-scientists from espousing the ever-resurfacing canards of Japan’s tribal invulnerability. (During SARS, these dunderheads were even theorizing, for example, that Japanese speakers spread less disease because they don’t spit when talking.)

But that didn’t immunize the public against discrimination. Taking advantage of the anonymity offered by the phone and Internet, Japanese patients received bullying messages and phone calls warning them not to spread their pox, as if these Typhoid Marys had become brain-dead zombies ready to bite Japanese society into dystopia.

The media propagated it further. Drafting the assistance of over-cooperative airlines, news broadcasts reported the seating arrangements of infected people. Then panelists wondered if anyone within a two-meter radius (the reputed range of the virus) of these individuals could rejoin our healthy society.

They even filmed airport quarantine rooms, where sweaty-handed bureaucrats tape-measured a two-meter distance between chairs down to the centimeter. Like Aso, everyone was so afraid of being seen to do nothing that they did too much.

Finally, Health Minister Yoichi Masuzoe called for reason: Calm down, everyone. It’s just the flu! Not much different than what we get every season.

Good, but this too is symptomatic: It’s usually not until Japanese become the target of discrimination that government agencies try to soothe the hotheads.

Let’s learn our lessons already. This will not be the last pandemic we experience in our lifetimes. The media is predicting a second round of H1N1 within a year. Even if that doesn’t happen, we will undoubtedly track future bugs in real time as they spread and sicken. That’s what bugs do — that’s how they survive. And it seems whipping up public fear is how media networks survive.

But if humankind itself is to survive, with any degree of integrity and protection for the people in weakened circumstances, we must learn not to succumb to what perpetually plagues the human condition: ignorance and panic. If people don’t keep a sense of perspective, they could wreak more damage than the flu did.

So let’s keep our radar screens on how these cycles of discrimination recur.

Beware the poxy mouths of irresponsible media, spreading misleading data from panic-addled pundits and profiting pharmaceutical companies (you think surgical masks actually filter out microscopic viruses?). Also, question the government’s readiness to treat Japan as a hermetically sealable island, walling it off from foreigners.

These are unhealthy trends that authorities rarely reflect upon or forsake. They even officially encourage the wagging tongues and clacking keyboards of anonymous ignorant, petulant bullies. The government might keep the germ out, but they won’t stop infectious ideas breeding and hurting people anyway.

So the lessons to be learned: Let cool heads prevail over feverish rumor; let sensible precautions and accurate information prevail over quick-fix elixirs and snake-oil social science; and for heaven’s sake, stop blaming the victim for being sick!

Above all, let everyone realize that infections, unlike people, are indiscriminate.

Debito Arudou coauthored the “Handbook for Newcomers, Migrants and Immigrants.” Twitter arudoudebito. Just Be Cause appears on the first Community Page of the month. Send comments to community@japantimes.co.jp