Monday, May 18, 2009

Pandemics of Panic?

The swine flu - er, Influenza A H1N1 - seems to be stabilizing following the initial outbreak in Mexico that sent scary images of people donning face masks and reports of school shutdowns and business closures shooting around the world. What at first appeared like a possible pandemic now seems more likely to be a dress rehearsal - and a wake-up call for public officials, journalists and travelers.

The flu certainly got the travel industry's attention, and as a travel journalist, I can see why. It hit travel at a delicate time, just as the travel biz was already struggling with the global economic crisis. Airlines already burdened by falling consumer demand in the Great Recession slashed the number of flights to Mexico. Some cruise-ship lines aren't even calling at Mexican seaports, preferring to err on the side of safety, till the all-clear finally and definitively sounds. In China, there was an overreaction, as Chinese officials interred Mexican travelers, to show how tough they could be - on others - after dragging their feet with SARS and avian flu a few years back. In Hong Kong, officials quarantined a major hotel for a week, following one confirmed H1N1 case.

Hindsight is always easy, of course. But even in the early days, back in late March and April, the flu outbreak seemed to me to be generating more fear of illness than actual illness. I thought: Why disrupt the routine operation of business, and throw the multi-billion-dollar travel world into turmoil for what even then appeared to be a disease only marginally more serious than seasonal flu? I think it, still.

Consider the numbers: Some 500,000 people worldwide die from influenza every year, according to the World Health Organization. Two months after the H1N1 flu was first reported, about 8800 cases have been recorded and 74 deaths attributed to the illness. I don't mean to make light of this; any illness is unpleasant and any premature death tragic. But seen in context, this is a minor spike in disease.

Of course, this flu could still have a resurgence. Absent that, lessons from this outbreak are clear: We should all take prudent steps to prevent contagion, on the road and at home, and we should not panic. Political leaders should stick to the facts and not posture or take ill-advised decisions to cover their backs.

Travelers should use common sense and follow the guidelines posted by tourism authorities, airlines, tour operators and industry groups such as the International Air Transport Association ( and the U.S. Air Transport Association (, and health authorities such as the WHO ( and America's Centers for Disease Control ( Broadly, that comes down to washing your hands, keeping your hands away from your face, using hand-wipes on planes and in airports and not traveling at all if you are sick. Do these simple things, and the risk of transmission will be reduced.

Tourism in Mexico - which accounts for about 8 percent of that country's economy, according to the New York Times - will come back. Huge hotel discounts (think 50 percent and more) and government subsidies to Mexican airlines and airports will help. But some of this could have been avoided. Thanks to the worldwide system of disease reporting and the 24/7 news cycle, speed can easily outstrip judgment; at its worst, this can produce pandemics of panic.

Next time, we need to keep all this in mind.

You can find more thoughts on travel and my recently published articles on my Web site,

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