Embrace the swine flu panic

Embrace the swine flu panic

Right after the first casualty of swine flu this month, India witnessed headlines screaming about the epidemic. News channels kept covering its spread until it wasn’t breaking news any more. Schools, colleges and even movie theatres have been closed for days together, affecting business, entertainment and education.

As if this panic wasn’t enough, only a few government laboratories were allowed to test for the disease. Even in large cities such as New Delhi, Mumbai and Pune, only a handful of hospitals were permitted to treat swine flu patients. Such scarcity created a pressure-cooker situation, and the panic multiplied. Thousands of people rushed to the few hospitals for testing. We suddenly noticed many people wearing N95 masks. Even handkerchiefs and dupattas substituted masks while walking in public. Share prices of multiplex companies have gone down, some big Bollywood movie launches have been cancelled and sales at shopping malls have decreased.

But, given human nature, has this panic been all that detrimental?

Before getting to that, we should ask ourselves: Should the government have approached the whole swine flu epidemic in a calmer way?

Consider an alternative scenario where the government educates all airline passengers about the symptoms and consequences of this flu. People are requested to visit the hospitals in their locality in case of any symptoms, and those with the disease are asked to take precautions by not leaving their homes. If they do visit a crowded place, they are advised to wear a mask. Educational messages about swine flu are communicated through both television and newspapers. Thanks to these messages, the general public is now aware of this disease and starts taking precautions.

But is this alternative calmer and educational approach better in managing the crisis to the panic- creating one that currently exists?

As human beings, we are not as rational as it may seem. Even while making life-and-death decisions, we do not want to change our existing behaviour. Blame it on the human brain’s huge bias towards status quo. For example, if we were told that swine flu death rates are similar to a normal flu, and that there was no need to panic, our human brain that is hardwired to be overconfident of managing any future problems would tend to ignore swine flu completely. Meanwhile, we, as a country, prefer cure to prevention; preventive healthcare and public hygiene are rare behavioural traits. Until the disease became serious and widespread, no one would have visited a hospital. And before the panic hit, even if masks were distributed for free, who would wear a mask while in public?

The first stage of any epidemic management is containment. Thanks to the panic created, anyone with even a slight symptom has visited a hospital. A very large number of people are wearing masks. Had it not been for the benefits of this panic situation, as the government and health authorities moved to the second phase of the epidemic management—the treatment phase—they would have been facing a catastrophe. This is when millions more would have been infected with swine flu. And that would have been a very dangerous situation for a large country such as ours to manage.

Cognitive scientists have told us that the first response to any situation is always emotional. In times of crisis when one’s very survival is in danger, the decisions of the emotional part of the brain can be depended upon more than those of its rational part. I wouldn’t know if this panic situation in India happened by design or if it was an accident. Either way, it has performed wonderfully to activate the emotional part of our brain. This has helped us take better decisions and contain this epidemic at a very nascent stage by altering our behaviour and ensuring that all will be well. Soon.

Biju Dominic is CEO of Final Mile, a consulting firm in Mumbai. Comments are welcome at otherviews@livemint.com