May 13, 2009

Viral media

Whoop! Whoop! Call off the freak-out. Put away your haz-mat Snuggie. You’re going to live. The H1N1 virus, formerly known as “The Other White Meat Flu,” is running scared. Officials have reduced the threat level from “We’re all going to die right now” to “We’re not going to die until next winter.”

The blasphemous reason for this lies in natural selection, Darwin be praised. After roaring through a section of Mexico City like a Baptist missionary on a mescal-fueled salvation bender, H1N1 apparently paused for some quiet reflection about its future: If it became too deadly, the flu reasoned, it would kill all its hosts and make itself impossible to spread, which would ruin its chances to find out how “Lost” ends. But by mutating into a weaker bug, one that makes us puke but still feel like going to the mall, the flu can survive to cause diarrhea another day. In other words, like “Beowulf”’s Grendel and “Sonic”’s Dr. Eggman, the virus wants to live more than it wants to kill.

So the flu was just another big news-tease. At least the utter helplessness of medical authorities in the face of a potential pandemic gave us a glimpse behind the curtain of western medicine. With no pill, vaccine, surgery, implant, transplant or poppy plant to fall back on, the experts’ best recommendation was to wash our hands. This advice might seem frustrating to most people, but to people with obsessive-compulsive disorder it was a bit of righteous vindication.

“Ha!” we thought, washing our hands. “When I’m done washing my hands, I am SO going to wash my hands in commemoration of this moment.” H1N1 must be nature’s way of ensuring the survival of people with OCD. If that is indeed the case, look for viruses in the coming years that reward those who check the thermostat 87 times per hour and swing back by the house during vacation to make sure the iron’s unplugged.

Unlike God, Jesus, Allah, Vishnu, Shiva, Ra, Tenchi-Kane-no-Kami, Hathor and The Flying Spaghetti Monster, nature seems to actually show an interest in our activities here on earth. With global warming, for example, nature punishes those who buy the wrong light bulbs. With mad cow disease, nature rewards those who eat tofurkey. And now, with swine flu, nature has identified the neurotically hygienic as its chosen people. If nature has its way, the next millennium will be dominated by the genetic offspring of Al Gore and that guy from “Monk.” (With a little luck, maybe there’ll be some Leonardo DiCaprio and Scarlett Johansson sprinkled in.)

While nature’s exact intention is often unclear (e.g., cockroaches, Rupert Murdoch), it’s obviously not happy about factory farming. A “farm” in Veracruz, Mexico, outed by the H1N1 panic, is home to one million pigs, whose snout-to-snout conditions make it easy for viruses to thrive. One million pigs! That many pigs in one place is hard to imagine. I mean, that’s like 1.3 Thunders. OK, so it’s not that hard to visualize. But the smell must be about as welcome as a bonfire of hair. How could something dastardly not come out of such a place?

Hoof-and-mouth disease, bird flu, mad cow, E. coli, and many other animal-related diseases are sure signs nature isn’t pleased about our chalupa habit. And the massive doses of antibiotics agribusinesses cram into these factory animals promises a future world of diseases that are resistant to antibiotics. Which are the only things proven to make children pipe down and watch “Dora” so Daddy can get back to obsessing about airborne pathogens. On the bright side, that scenario presents a bonanza of possible future compulsions. Hey, with OCD, the glass is always half-full (and, frankly, could use another washing).

And isn’t our national addiction to fear in any form — terrorism, nukes, disease, that nagging concern that you might or might not be gay after all — collective OCD? Don’t we get a little thrill when the bombshell comes on TV to talk about bombshells? Don’t we panic whenever we’re out of touch for more than 90 seconds? Has reloading HuffPo become the new touch-your-tongue-to-the-lamppost? Scare me, Ariana, please scare me!

One thing’s for sure: News outlets aren’t equipped to inform the public about an outbreak of good news. You never see teasers like “Nobody’s dying — details at 11” or banner headlines announcing that “Everybody’s happy and all computers are working fine.”

But with H1N1 there’s nothing to fear. Unless, you know, you really want to.