Sunday, June 28, 2009

Thinking About Swine Flu (1)

Like most of you, I’m sure, I can’t quite decide what to think about the swine flu pandemic that appears to be upon us. I’m not even sure if that’s the right word—my dictionary defines “pandemic” as an “epidemic of infectious disease that spreads through populations across a large region, for instance a continent, or even the world,” but surely we are not there quite yet: fewer than one hundred cases in all these United States, fewer than one hundred confirmed cases even in Mexico, a dozen or so in Canada, and a few sick people in a few other countries—that’s “a few” as in numbers with single digits—in Germany, Austria, Israel, Peru, the U.K., New Zealand, and a few other countries. To a non-specialist like myself, the decision of the World Health Organization to raise its infectious disease alert level to phase 5, its second highest level, sounds premature. But, of course, they really are the experts. So what do I know? In some strange way, I’m worried about not being worried enough.

Nor can I decide what to think about the people, including the young people nearby in eastern Queens, who have become ill. Are they the unlucky harbingers of something massive and terrible? Or are they the lucky few who, as a result of suffering through a few days of the swine flu in its milder form, will now be immune when the really terrible version arrives on these shores in a few months? Nor is it at all encouraging to notice how the news media, in an effort both to stem incipient hysteria and at the same time to sell newspapers (or attract viewers or web surfers or browsers), have created the contradictory sense both that something major is about to happen but that no one actually seems to know what precisely it is.

What everybody does seem to know is that fifty million people died in the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918. (I must have read that statistic a dozen times in the last few days in different articles and essays.) But the obvious question (“Is it 1918 again?”) remains unanswered and possibly also—at last for now—unanswerable. I suppose the bottom line has to be that no one knows where we stand exactly, that national and international public health officials are trying to be responsible by raising the public’s awareness level, that all we really can do is try to take some elemental precautions and hope for the best. For some reason, none of the above makes me feel especially reassured. The World Health Organization estimates that swine flu is fatal in 1% to 4% of the people who contract it. Is that thought supposed to reassure? I suppose it is! And yet, like all the other data I’ve been exposed to in recent days, it only makes me feel confused and just a bit queasy. Is this nothing? Or is it the beginning of something big? Or of something really, really big? I suppose we’ll all know eventually. In the meantime, the president sounded soothing enough the other night when he encouraged us to wash our hands carefully and often, and to avoid sneezing on each other. I can do that! (For the record, I think I can recall Mrs. Greenbaum giving me the same instructions when I was in her kindergarten class at P.S. 3. So far, so good!)

At the end of his life, King David had a huge lapse of good judgment and decided to order a census so that he could know just how many men could potentially be called up for military service in the event of war. To moderns, this doesn’t sound like such an unreasonable thing to do, but the ancients were possessed of the conviction—which the story I am about to tell you suggests the Almighty shared with them—that formally counting one’s people in is a bad idea. For one thing, it encourages the sense that military victory is a function of the size of one’s army rather than of divine favor. For another, it’s a huge keinhoro (as my grandmother would have said)—why call attention to the size of one’s fighting force when doing so is practically to dare the world to attempt to cut it down to size? But for whatever reason, David proceeds and the census is taken.

The numbers—800,000 fighting men in the north and another half million in south—sound good. But David knew he had done wrong and the next morning the prophet Gad, a shadowy figure known mostly from this one story, appeared with a ghastly choice for David to consider: David could choose to be punished with seven years of famine or with a three-month-long string of military defeats or with a three-day-long pandemic that would affect the entire country. David, considering his options and preferring to put himself and his people in God’s hands, went with the pandemic. And so it happened. Seventy thousand people died. David was in shock, not least of all because his people were paying the price for his own folly: “And David spoke to the Lord when he saw the angel attacking the people and said, ‘Behold, I have sinned and I have behaved wickedly. But these sheep, my flock, what have they done? Let your hand, I beg you, be against me and against my father’s house’” (2 Samuel 24:17). God, apparently unimpressed by the “why should they pay for my sin” argument, kept the epidemic going for the full three day limit. And, indeed, it was just as “the angel was stretching out his hand against Jerusalem to destroy it,” that the plague finally ended. Jerusalem, at least, was spared. And the specific spot the angel had been standing when God finally stayed his hand became the site of the Temple David’s son Solomon would build.

Most modern readers will find this story ghastly. How, we ask ourselves, can this even be in the Bible, this tale that suggests that scores of thousands died in an instance of nation-wide pestilence because of the folly of one man? But the story is there, and it is part of our heritage. And its lesson, if taught here just a bit too brutally for modern tastes, is still as meaningful as it ever was. The strange mixture of invulnerability and vulnerability that characterizes the human condition is neither accidental nor tragic, the narrative is suggesting obliquely, but it is key to understanding the human condition. (In a sense, the fact that the Temple itself was built at the precise boundary between the two realms only adds to the sense that we have come across a truly sacred truth.) Nor is it hard to imagine how we are meant to respond emotionally when we too find ourselves straddling the boundary between the two realms.

The invulnerable part of who we are—the part about being able to endure even the worst natural disasters, to withstand the horrors of war, to survive even the greatest personal catastrophes—should make us proud. The vulnerable part—the part in which even the healthiest and bravest among us can be felled by a virus so tiny that most of us cannot even begin to fathom how small such things really are—should make us humble. (Your average virus is somewhere from 20 to 400 nanometers wide. One nanometer is one millionth of a millimeter. A millimeter is about half the width of the head of a pin.) And from that combination of pride in our independence and humility in the face of our dependence on factors we can neither see nor control should, at least ideally, emerge individuals comfortable with being responsible for their own actions in a world that is somehow nevertheless governed by God.

Stories about swine flu have only been front-page news for a week or so. A month ago, which of us had ever heard of the disease at all, let alone feared it or worried about it? And yet we have all come through its agency yet again to feel grateful to God for our good health, thus willing to turn in prayer to God when threatened with the prospect of being overwhelmed by an epidemic that no one knows how to control or how to avoid. For the moment, all we can do is to keep our hands washed and exploit our feelings of vulnerability to create a more caring world. Perhaps we can even take this opportunity to rededicate ourselves (and to remind our representatives in Congress and our president to rededicate themselves) to the principle that access to adequate health care should be considered a simple human right and not one of the perks of wealth. In my experience, it is when people feel themselves to be the most vulnerable that they paradoxically also feel the greatest interest in helping others in need. (Or perhaps this isn’t all that paradoxical either, come to think of it. Who could be more sensitive to the plight of the hungry among us than people who can’t be sure where their own next meals are coming from?) I certainly hope no one reading this is starving. But the reality of swine flue means that all of us are facing an uncertain future…and that should work just as well to engender the kind of altruism I’m guessing the reality of human frailty was intended to induce all along.

The next few weeks and months will make it obvious if we are facing a pandemic on the 1918 scale or something far less terrifying. For the moment, other than obeying the instructions of our public health officials, all we can do is exploit the vulnerability we are all feeling to grow spiritually and emotionally. Perhaps, if we work together and selflessly, we can both stem the tide of this potential epidemic and grow into finer people in the process. (May 1, 2009)

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.