In a moment of national panic, what is the safest way forward?

When a deadly virus swept the U.S. in 2009, killing thousands of people, panic felt especially necessary. A variant of the influenza that spreads every year, the “swine flu” made headlines as new reports of deaths rolled in. Graphic, tragic tales of lives lost spread fear.

Many Americans still remember that winter as particularly treacherous. But swine flu ultimately did no more damage in the country than any typical flu virus. In fact, the year that swine flu struck was one of the lightest flu seasons in recent history. Influenza killed about 12,500 Americans that year. The average annual death toll over the past decade has been closer to 50,000.

Social scientists have since explained the panic as a matter of “risk acceptability.” What made that flu stand out in people’s minds? In part, who it killed. Unlike in most years, swine flu hospitalized many young adults. Cases involved people who are not supposed to die of the flu—not just the grandparent with emphysema, but the high-school athlete. Despite any ongoing plague of death and destruction, this sort of new, unanticipated danger invariably captures national attention.

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James Hamblin – The Atlantic – October 1, 2019.

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