Flu response poses different illness

Galen Bernard

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Whitman, we are taking the wrong approach to the flu. Students being isolated to the degree that one friend of mine recently went three days without physical contact with another person is not healthy. A brief one-arm hug should not trigger tears of thanks because the recipient has so missed human touch.

In past years when people got the flu they felt bad and went about their business as energy permitted. Friends of the sick student washed their hands more, the especially careful perhaps cleaned shared surfaces; but the idea of isolating someone from social and physical contact with others for days would have seemed preposterous. It is preposterous. The only reason we are abiding by it now is we are afraid of the terrible swine flu, and probably a little confused about what it really is.

We are afraid because we’ve heard that swine flu hits people our age harder than most. But of all hospitalizations in 2009 due to H1N1, people 19-24 years old account for only nine percent, second lowest of six age categories. Yes, there is reason to take precautions. From accounts I’ve heard, the flu, whatever kind it may be, is hitting harder than usual this year. Most bouts include at least one day when the sick individual just wants to lie in bed and not move. And the H1N1 virus spreads more easily than seasonal influenza because fewer people have immunity. But allowing concern about getting sick to distance us from friends is the wrong approach to health.

I have seen a friend weep because after a few days in isolation feeling alone turned into feeling abandoned. When not afraid we see the value of caring and connection. We regularly prioritize friendships over health, staying awake far later than we should to hang out. Now we express surprise when we hear a sick student is going to dinner with some friends: “Do they know you have swine flu?” we ask, as if it is certain that knowing this would override the instinct to care for those close to us. As if the person with the flu might be guilty of deceiving others into interacting.

The individual responses echo campus-wide instructions. “Don’t Be An Infector” read signs in big black letters in buildings around campus. In a normal flu season this would be a harmless label given to add some attention and even levity to the situation. But in the context of current alarm, infector has become an identity. We have lost the sense that underneath the coughing and clammy skin, the sick are our friends, and are currently at their most vulnerable. An infector? How about an ailing individual needing affection?

We should not be inflicting isolation on ourselves, nor should our friends and the medical professionals advising us about health. One reason we may be so afraid is that we don’t know what kind of sick we are. While the health center continues to label all serious symptoms influenza-like illnesses, students are calling any flu the swine flu. The ambiguity about who has what is creating a false certainty that all flu is swine flu, which in turns feeds irrational fear. We’ve heard swine flu is worse than season flu. It can kill! But, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 100,000 people are hospitalized each year by the seasonal flu and about 36,000 die. Perhaps this year sickness seems scarier than before because the sickness has a novel name; or perhaps because the health center is telling people to stay home no matter what. I am not saying the health center should test for swine flu. I don’t know the financial costs of testing. But I do know the emotional health cost that our doctrine of isolation is exacting. I am saying we need to pause the panic for a moment and ask if avoiding the flu is really worth avoiding friends.

I would suggest an almost opposite approach. Take a hypothetical example of two friends. One guy gets sick; his friend brings chicken soup and company. Then, yes, the friend gets sick; but the guy who first succumbed to illness offers help and hugs. A few days of feeling bad for each produces a closer friendship. We have been neglecting this possibility. I realize protecting our health is a strong instinct. When my housemate entered the apartment yesterday and announced his throat was sore, for a moment I was upset. I am at risk because he spent time with his sick girlfriend. How dare he! Then I recalled the sight of another friend earlier this week, the most desolate I have ever seen him, sick from flu but sicker still from the idea that he could not visit his girlfriend in Portland. How dare any of us not choose love and caring over risking a few days of the flu. If we would maintain our health by leaving friends literally isolated, alone and in tears, and in doing so disregard chances to bolster friendships, then we really are ill.