I have been sick for the past week with what could be the flu. My doctor, however, tells me it’s not swine flu, which he said would produce milder symptoms than what I have. The antibiotics he prescribed seem to be doing the trick.
Is swine flu the latest in a series of promised events – wondrous or catastrophic – that never quite materialize? It’s not to ignore the suffering of those who have died of swine flu, or H1N1 virus, now the politically correct term, nor to deride the efforts of the WHO and the CDC to prepare for the worst, but it helps to look at the epidemic with some perspective . So far H1N1 has stricken just under 8,500 people worldwide, half of them in the United States, of whom 75 have died. The media have just reported an “explosion” of 70 new cases in Japan. The WHO estimates that if the world were to suffer a pandemic on the scale of the 1918-1919 Spanish flu, which killed at least 20 million people, we could expect 62 million deaths. Given the current mortality rate from H1N1, this would imply more than 7 billion cases, meaning that everyone on earth would get it, some of us twice. Are the Doomsday scenarios justified? Are people being scared out of their wits for no reason?
Meanwhile, according to the WHO, ordinary seasonal flu attacks between 3 million and five million people annually, of whom 250,000 to 500,000 die, mostly people aged 65 and older. The UN estimates that more than 1.2 million people die every year in road accidents, meaning that you should carefully weigh the risk of dying of flu against the risk of dying in a car accident on your way to get vaccinated.
Does anyone remember bird flu? This was supposed to be a devastating killer. Two people I know and respect, who at the time were involved with epidemic preparedness efforts in the U.S., told me I should take the threat very seriously and should consider stocking my cellar with food, water, and an emergency generator.
Where are the killer bees? In the 1980s vast swarms of aggressive bees with poisoned stings were said to be massing in Mexico, soon to invade Texas. John Belushi performed a famous set of skits on “Saturday Night Live,” in which he played a bandito-style head of a gang of killer bees. By 2000 they were to have overrun New York, Boston, and Montreal.
It’s not only the disasters that have failed to materialize. I remember 1974, when the comet Kohoutek was supposed to light up the night sky, far brighter than any comet ever seen. We all climbed up on the dormitory roof to watch it at its perigee, but all we ever saw was a faint smudge that looked like a blurry star. Even Halley’s Comet, which made its most recent once-every-75-years appearance in 1986, turned out to be a barely visible dud, nothing like 1066, when it heralded the Norman invasion and appeared four times larger than Venus, the Morning Star. I won’t live to see it again.
I remember in grade school when “The Future” was depicted for us in realistic detail. Men dressed in business suits, wearing fedoras, would strap on their rocket belts in the morning, kiss the wife goodbye, and zoom off to the office, briefcase in hand. I’m still waiting for that. Of course The Future, circa 1962, didn’t have laptop computers, iPods, cell phones, botox, piercings, or Boy George.
Predictions, economic or otherwise, are almost always based, explicitly or implicitly, on present trends continuing. But as the fund prospectuses say, past performance is no guarantee of future results. If the trends observed by Thomas Malthus or the Union of Concerned Scientists had continued, by now we would all be dead of starvation or nuclear war.
The future isn’t what it used to be and it never will be. The only thing we now know for certain about the future is that it won’t be what it is today. Or, as Yogi Berra said, “Making predictions is tough, especially about the future.” As we ponder the next impending miracle or disaster we would do well to keep that in mind.