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Linda Chavez
Linda Chavez
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Foot-in-Mouth Disease

Comment

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.

Linda Chavez is the author of "An Unlikely Conservative: The Transformation of an Ex-Liberal." To find out more about Linda Chavez, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at www.creators.com.

COPYRIGHT 2009 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.



Comments

4 Comments | Post Comment
Indeed words do matter, Linda. Get your facts straight. GDP did not shrink by 6.1% in the first quarter or 6.3% in the fourth quarter of 2008. Those figures are the annual rates of decline during each quarter. So the actual GDP change in the first quarter was ((-.061+1)^.25)-1 = about -1.6% from the previous period.
Though I admit many news outlets routinely misreport the GDP annual rates for the quarter as actual GDP quarterly change, I am disappointed that you perpetuate the (as you termed Biden's comments) misinformation.
Comment: #1
Posted by: Jon
Fri May 1, 2009 8:11 AM
Ma'am;...Mr. Biden accidently told the truth... Instead of abusing him you ought to confront the whole government's inability to address issues of public health in a rational fashion if that should conflict with the desire of capital for profit...I know it has always been the case that capital was born and has prospered on human tragedies, dating its actual birth with the Black Death... It freed capital and made wealth accessible for the capitalist... God was deaf to so many prayers, but he heard the cry of capital.... Now, if government cannot tell the truth, and everywhere invites infestation of every sort of pest, and disease to have trade, it is not the poor man who dares speak truth that needs most your contumely... Save that for the real fools and villains of this story... It might be wise during this slack time for business to cut back on business...No one can do it...No one with a job dares not go and do it, sick, dead, or dying... We may not find it this time, but some day one of these viral wonders is going to cut us down like an axe... I know it will be good for business... That does not excuse it...It will demonstrate again the inability of our government to govern... Thanks...Sweeney
Comment: #2
Posted by: James A, Sweeney
Fri May 1, 2009 7:26 PM
I AM ALWAYS OUTRAGED BY PEOPLE LIKE YOU WHO PUT THE FINANCIAL HEALTH OF BUSINESS ABOVE THE HEALTH AND LIVES OF THE PEOPLE. I JOIN VICE PRESIDEN BIDEN AND TELL MY GRAND CHILDREN
TO STAY AWAY FROM TRAVEL FACILITIES THAT ENCASES ITS PASSENGERS TO INHALE AND EXHALE THE SAME AIR. LINDA, DON'T YOU KNOW THAT SWINE FLU VIRUS IS AN AIR-BORNE VIRUS, AND THIS VIRUS IS DEADLY BUT I GUESS YOU BELIEVE HEALTHS OF BIG BUSINESS IN MORE IMPORTANT THAN
PEOPLES' HEALTH AND LIVES. THAT KIND OF THINKING CAN ONLY COME FROM LEANING IN THE SCHOOL HOUSE OF THE DEVIL!
Comment: #3
Posted by: SCOTT D'AMBROSE
Sat May 2, 2009 5:50 AM
Ms. Chavez,
I to listened to every word that Joe Biden said on the Today Show, Fri May 1st 2009. At no time did he advise the general public to stay off public transportation. He was only speaking about advice he would have for his own family. He has that right as a free American. I would advise my own family to stay off public transportation at this time also, but you are not my family so I couldn't care less what you or anyone else does on this subject.
I am going to give you the benefit of the doubt here and assume you have a limited knowledge of English comprehension.
Comment: #4
Posted by: Charlie Greene
Sat May 2, 2009 6:59 AM
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