Laurie Garrett is the only writer to have won the three "P's" of journalism, the Pulitzer, the Peabody and the Polk prizes.
Ms Garett was speaking yesterday as a senior fellow at the Council of Foreign Relations in New York. Referring to widespread panic as a possible reaction to a bird flu pandemic she said, "Personally, I am a lot more worried about pandemic flu than Al Qaeda."
In her statements she not only underlined the low tech solutions of basic hygiene and personal responsibility as our best defense against this disease, she also outlined community solidarity and social resilience as critical elements.
The implications are that the solutions lie in improved frequency and content of information, message, and education. The more people prepared and reassured with knowledge, the best able we are, collectively, to protect ourselves. It is a collective problem, and those who are not involved in being part of the solution, will, detrimentally to us all, be part of the problem, and it will be all of our problem.
The larger implication is that if more people take simple, adequate precautions, perhaps it can prevent the mutated virus from full pandemic spread. We don't know and can't guess, because it is, so far, beyond our knowledge, and beyond our experience. But, at no time in history has a message been so dispersable as it is today with the light speed of communications. Words spread even more quickly than viruses. Is it possible that since we know how to protect ourselves individually with sanitary precautions, and ourselves collectively with socially responsible behaviours such as cough and sneeze etiquette and social distancing, that more people solidly behind these measures could ameliorate some of the effects of influenza spread?
It would, indeed, be very naive to assume we could prevent the pandemic wave in this way, but surely besting this threat is going to require the combined will of everyone to minimize its effect. This will require massive education measures. Governments have been reluctant to overtly address this issue for fear the threat of pandemic would result in panic. Messages of this order, "from the top down" so to speak, would no doubt be seen as alarming.
Precautionary messages must be supported from "the bottom, up", from a common understanding that we all develop, and new behaviours that we all adapt. We cannot wait for the Government to "do something about it." "The Government" is less able than we, individually, to impact social behaviour.
Now is the best time to discuss it in the open, while there is time to prepare and prevent. Talk to your friends and families. Calm and open discussions in workplaces, along with informed presentations, and home and workplace planning would be the best efforts to convert panic into planning.