Last year, Virginia suffered 1,800 flu deaths. So far, the COVID-19 virus has taken about 425. The 2017-18 flu season was the worst in four decades. More than 80,000 Americans died that year.
What if newspapers posted a chart of flu deaths on their front page every day, like they now do with COVID? Wouldn’t that scare the bejesus out of people? Imagine the headlines on Jan. 8, 2018 – “80 Virginians died this week from the flu.” Or this whopper at the end of February: “120 dead just this week alone from flu or flu-like illnesses.” Or this – “Flu is expected to take more than 2,000 Virginians before the season is over.”
And the drumbeat goes on week, after week, after week. I wonder if I’d ever leave the house.
I was in organizational communications for more than four decades. I have observed that when something happens every day in the background, people tend to take it for granted. Like flu deaths. But when it enters the consciousness of the general public, it can be totally misunderstood.
Consider this – I worked for Rockwell Hanford in Washington State in the 1980s. My company was the Bombs Are Us for the Department of Energy (DOE). We made plutonium for nukes. (Interesting place to cut one’s PR teeth.)
It was a business where workers were almost routinely exposed to low levels of radiation. (It was not a good thing, but neither is cutting one’s hand on an automotive assembly line. It happens.) If possibly exposed and/or at the end of each shift, workers went to a counter to ensure they were clean. If not, they washed with soap and water and measured again. (Sound familiar in the current environment?) Not a big deal from the standpoint of worker protection.
But– a new DOE director arrived from Washington, D.C., with a full-disclosure attitude (which we PR types later dubbed “The Open Kimono Policy”). Lo, when we started publishing the weekly exposure stats, the media had a field day. “Radiation exposures rampant at Washington DOE site,” they said.
Sadly, our safety stats were actually the best we’d had in years. It took months of statistics and education to get that genie back in the box. And yes, we stopped the weekly releases of exposure data.
The norms are there in the background. Once it lands on the front-page, it creates an entirely new perspective… an entirely new level of awareness. Uh, kind of like President Trump when he said, “Gee, I didn’t know people died from the flu.” New information can be shocking to the uninitiated.
I do not dare pin this current problem all on the media. Epidemiologists, health care providers, and policy makers didn’t really know what this thing looked like. When facing the unknown, they elected to SHUT IT DOWN. That was the right decision. It was and remains big news.
And I realize that COVID 19 is not the flu. It was unknown, spreading fast, and therefore pretty frightening. It strikes the elderly more severely than others. But like the flu, it’s more lethal for those with underlying health problems. While it is “novel” (derived from the Latin word Novus for new… why can’t we just say new?), data are mounting concerning it transmissibility, severity, and deadliness. Some say it acts quite like the flu. Is it possible that, other than some severe hotspots like New York City and other major cities, we are fixated just a bit too much?
We react to the news. Studies have shown that consumers of negative news are more pessimistic or exhibit misperceptions of risk. Faced with the drumbeat of negative news, consumers have difficulty discerning relative risk. Car crashes kill about one million people annually. Commercial air crashes almost nil. Yet, fear of flying far outranks fear of driving in most any culture. Automotive deaths are, sadly, background noise compared to an airliner crash.
I recently heard an immunologist say, “Normally, we quarantine the sick. For the first time in history, we’ve quarantined the healthy.” We may be in the midst of self-induced hysteria. We obsess over the statistics. We’ve slammed our economy with record levels of unemployment. And we keep reading those damn COVID charts. Maybe it’s time to put it all in perspective.
Larry Hincker is a retired corporate communications and public relations executive and lives in Blacksburg.There are currently no comments highlighted.