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Judith Timson on H1N1

Can we please stop the swining and swanning? Add to ...

Call this what it is - the season of behaving swinishly.

Whether it's swining (whining constantly about how badly handled the Canadian H1N1 vaccination rollout has been), or swanning (skipping arrogantly in front of others to get your poke in the arm), or swooning (dramatizing any mild ailment you have as "possibly H1N1, but I don't think so"), living in the shadow of this pandemic and coping with the considerable confusion of the vaccination schedule has caused some of us to behave badly.

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Let me count the ways.

The first shake of the head in disgust goes to the Toronto lawyer who, after taking his family to be vaccinated at a private clinic (he has a corporate membership) ahead of other, less privileged patients who lined up for hours at public clinics, said: "Quite frankly, I think this kind of proves socialized health care doesn't work."

No, it kind of proves that corporate entitlement is alive and well.

Then there were the Calgary hockey players and their families who sparked outrage by jumping the queue and getting early shots. Perhaps they would now consider contributing to an unemployment fund for the health official who was fired for arranging it.

Apparently that is only the tip of the ice rink: Pro and amateur hockey players in quite a few cities- surely among the healthier specimens in our society - have been vaccinated early because, why exactly?

I wonder also whether we in the media have gone too far by hyping H1N1 news to the point where anxiety about the disease is spreading faster than the virus itself. There's something about blaring headlines that the vaccine is running short that makes you want to run madly to get it.

There were the celebrity naysayers who gave odd answers to the question of whether they would get the vaccine. I'm puzzled most notably by Margaret Atwood, usually sharp as a tack, who said she was undecided because "I was told (by a talk show host in New York) that as I am over 65, I may have some immunity, as my parents had the 1919 flu." For as clear-eyed an observer as Ms. Atwood, it didn't make much sense, especially the part about believing anything a talk show host would tell her.

There is widespread confusion and chaos surrounding this pandemic, some of it caused by an erratic vaccination program. You can't repeatedly tell an anxious population to go get a vaccination, then not have it available when you say you're going to, and in the doses required.

To say, as several health officials have, that they were "surprised" by the public's avid response (admittedly fuelled suddenly by the deaths from H1N1 of two Ontario children) is to partly admit you are shocked that anyone believed your public service announcements in the first place.

Even slightly objectionable H1N1 behaviour stems from a very human place of fear or worry. Like parents I know who heard privately that a Toronto community clinic would be dispensing the vaccination early. They decided not to tell more than a few other people the good news before they could hurry their two young kids to the clinic. But it turned out their children were sick with something else, and couldn't be given the vaccine anyway. They wondered if it was nature's way of paying them back.

People do it all the time in a catastrophe (which this isn't yet, thankfully). They push themselves - either forcefully or subversively - to the head of the line, or into the Titanic lifeboats, ahead of the truly vulnerable. They also hoard - you can bet more than a few people have stocked up on the antiviral medication Tamiflu just in case. I hope they'll share if they don't require it. Confusion about what H1N1 is, exactly, has caused people to act in an unsettling fashion. Like the friend I saw on the street who, when I casually asked how she was, told me she had a sore throat but she didn't think it was "you know." I reared back, and she noticed it. I felt bad.

We will sort this all out. There will be postmortems on how the government could have improved its rollout, and how it can beef up its emergency preparedness; there will be analyses of the media's H1N1 coverage; and perhaps some individual stock-taking too.

Let me go first: I admit it, I've been swining - complaining about the inefficiency of the rollout. And I've even been swooning - convinced by the onset of even one symptom that I have "you know."

So far I haven't swanned, and got myself a VIP vaccination. But if I thought the lives of my loved ones were truly on the line, I'm not sure what I'd do. Let's hope it doesn't come to that.

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