Covering a flu

It’s easy to ask people not to panic. Please don’t panic, if swine flu doesn’t get you, the next truck will. But it wasn’t easy for us to take that stand, not with the whole world going crazy.

How do you tell parents not to panic when their children’s school shuts down after a child was reported down with swine flu? It’s no longer a scare, but a fact. And it’s not happening in another country, or city. The channels hit the panic button the day Rida Shaikh died in Pune. They have been in overdrive since. The newspapers were a little careful going down that road, or conservative perhaps.

And the biggest question: how do you ask others not to panic when you can feel it yourself? Anytime anyone near me sneezed or coughed, I turned away my face, stupidly perhaps, to escape the shotgun burst of droplets. But we took a stand, largely driven by one of the senior editors. We opened our offensive with a list of those killed till then by swine flu and with the diagnosis by the doctors.

In five of the eights cases listed, we found, that H1N1 was only an accomplice, the killer diseases were hypertension, diabetes, asthma or kidney problem.

The picture was quite clear. And so was the way forward: while there was no denying that people were dying of swine flu or complications caused by, there was no reason to panic. And that is essential.

I don’t know how many of you will recall the plague outbreak of 1994. I was then a reporter with The Times of India, and was assigned to cover the plague as all other reporters in the team.

That was the biggest story of the day. All newspapers – there were no news channels back then, with the exception of Doordarshan, which didn’t seem to care much for such stories – put everyone they could on the plague story.

I was assigned the Infectious Diseases Hospital, which was Ground Zero for Delhi. Most plague cases – suspected or otherwise – landed up there. It was a place where you could catch any and every infectious disease.

But it was an assignment, and I had to be there every day. My Yezdi – a phenomenally untrustworthy motorcycle — never once gave me the excuse to stay home. It reached me there every day, unfailingly.

We had the same concerns then. I used to keep a strip of a drug said to cure plague in the back of my jeans and a surgical mask – they were nothing like the N 95s available now, and cost only Rs 30.

Returning home after work was like driving through a ghost town – not a soul in sight. It was very eerie – only time in my life when I missed the noisy, chaotic Delhi traffic.

And then, it disappeared, just as suddenly as it had appeared. Life returned to the usual office-work-office cycle, and, gradually, plague faded out becoming only a memory.

But plague was no flu like the swine flu. Doctors and epidemiologists are now saying this is just one more flu in town, get used to it. It will harass and trouble you just like the others, the common flu.

It will be a while before sanity returns. Till then, we need to fight this together, both the disease and the panic.

I would like to hear your views on this…

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