Monday, November 23, 2009


-aaron wee

Why has the global response to Swine Flu been so politically charged? Talk about bad timing - Contagious would have loved to have been written just a year later and soak in the network culture's response to probably the mildest flu epidemic in generations.

I remember that horribly cynical, snarky, and just plain mean period of media coverage in early 2009 when the mainstream media was crying out about "Mexican Swine Flu". Popular conceptions within the developed world were more than willing to buy into this narrative - that the poor conditions within Mexican farms generated the right biological conditions for this new H1N1 strain. Oh no, it could in no way have come from those paradigms of modern hygiene across the border in American factory farms where the pigs get inoculated with thousands of vaccines... oh wait. Immediately after these and subsequent reports casting doubt on the flu's origins, MSM's use of the term "Mexican Swine Flu" dropped : this is Google News' aggregate of all news stories using the term "Mexican Swine Flu" - notice the sharp sudden rise after March and the precipitous decline after May.

Strangely, the term "North American Swine Flu" never caught on. Instead, we now use "Swine Flu" and pretend that little bit of "biological racism" never happened. (although agencies like TopNews, the Worcester Telegram, and the (Australian) Daily Telegraph didn't get the memo from the 90s that political correctness was mandatory). Admittedly, this research is flawed in that it is no doubt an English-centric worldview of disease naming...

Because the world just gets crazier.

Serious questions were asked: like, is Swine Flu kosher? Or Halal? Mind you, those were official arguments made by the Israeli Legislature, as reported in Haaretz, and a fatwa issued by an Iman. Not, TopNews. Then, we've got Slovakia closing its borders with Ukraine, the catastrophic failure of Cairo's refuse system, and Poland's vaccine epic-fail. These are serious problems, dealt with ostensibly serious peoples and governments.

And yet, we're all still caught up in a deceitful political narrative decades, or even centuries, in the making. There are strong geo-political biases that have been infected with the outbreak narrative and that persist to this day with its labels and imagined fictions about what a disease can and cannot do, and to whom. Which is why we still have the French Disease and the Spanish Flu - which, surprise, may have been an American strain (see a pattern in deadly flus emerging? or not...).

Wald made a good point by setting up the firsts of her episodes involving the narratives of disease with Outbreak's "African Mercenary Camp" opening. It feeds directly into the popular mythos of wartorn, poverty-stricken, disease-ridden Africa that the Western media is so apt to portray. Even though it was eventually America's networked-flight-connected world that would threaten the survival of the species, even if it was America's lax shipping standards and internal controls, even though it was the American military's absent-minded bio-warfare department's lack of safety and foresight, it was still nice to imagine a foreign cause.

These inherent biases that color and infect our narratives come from deeper political intrigue that have lasted and subsisted on the popular imagination for a very long time. Guangzhou, Wald mentions (35-38), makes the perfect  backdrop as exotic China, dirty China, chaotic China, authoritarian China, for the entrance of the Asian Bird Flu.

But why not American Swine Flu? Why not indeed?

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