Politics

Foot-in-Mouth Disease

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 subway."

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 instantaneously.

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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