Swine Flu Paranoia Reaching Pandemic Proportions

[Amy Bass, Morphizm
I am not, in general, a germ-a-phobic kind of girl. I do, yes, carry some hand sanitizer with me in my briefcase, as I quite often find the need to eat my breakfast on the commuter rails of the metropolitan New York area. And I do, yes, try to sit as far into the “well” section of the pediatrician’s office as I can when bringing my kid in for a check-up. But I touch elevator buttons. I touch the pen the cashier gives me to sign my credit card receipt. I touch doorknobs. And – oh yes – I even use the television remote control in hotel rooms.

Until recently, I didn’t consider my professional occupation – history – to be a hazardous one requiring gloves. Until now. Now, it seems, with the onslaught of swine flu into our lives, being a professor is a dangerous practice. Just last week, the announcement came: there will be no touching – handshaking, hugging, hooding, etc. – at graduation this year.

And apparently, we aren’t the only ones.

At Slippery Rock University in Pennsylvania, 22 students who had done student teaching in Mexico were banned from the main commencement ceremony, exiled to a small private ceremony because of fears of what we are now supposed to call H1N1 flu. Texas’s Cisco Junior College cancelled its commencement activities altogether, with the school intending on mailing diplomas to the graduates. In Boston, handshakes were prohibited at Northeastern’s graduation. With swine flu cases escalating – twenty or more – in Hawaii, the University of Hawaii has also nixed the handshake.

And that’s only colleges. Some high schools not only intend to change format for their own ceremonies: they cancelled THE PROM. Think the limo company is going to care why a kid is canceling the reservation?

I am not entirely unconcerned about swine flu. Nor do I think professors are going to make students any sicker than we have in the past, or vice versa. Professing is a germy business: close quartered classrooms, public keyboards and audio visual equipment, snot-ridden research papers. And during the winter months, the time for flu of the non-swine sort, we go about our usual business, with little fear as to which ones among us are going to be among the tens of thousands who get sick. Indeed, at holiday time, we put hands all over one another, even in the workplace, with tidings of good joy.

So why now? Why now are we running from these students that we have spent so much time with, why now do we flee screaming “NOT MY HAND! SHAKE ANYTHING BUT MY HAND!” Is it because we don’t have a flu shot for it yet? Because it isn’t just targeting the old? Because it was poorly named for the source of all things pork? Or, perhaps, because it seems to come from the land south of the border, the one that gets blamed for so many of America’s maladies, physical and otherwise?

Who knows. All I know is, come next week, as undergraduates proudly move their tassels from one side of their mortarboards to the other, I am going to try to shake as many of their hands as I can.

And then, sensibly and without fear, I will wash my own.

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