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Commentary: It's time to end flu hysteria

  • Story Highlights
  • Ruben Navarrette: Joe Biden's remarks stoked fears about flu pandemic
  • He says Biden statements could have caused crisis for air travel business
  • He says use of term "swine flu" has unfairly suggested food could be a cause
  • Navarrette: Illegal immigrants have been wrongly blamed for disease spread
By Ruben Navarrette Jr.
Special to CNN
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Editor's note: Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a member of the editorial board of the San Diego Union-Tribune and a nationally syndicated columnist. Read his column here.

Ruben Navarrette says the administration defended Biden by misrepresenting what he said.

Ruben Navarrette says the administration defended Biden by misrepresenting what he said.

SAN DIEGO, California (CNN) -- The Obama administration forgot the first rule in a crisis: Never send Vice President Joe Biden to calm people's fears.

During a television interview Thursday, Biden had a recurrence of his trademark foot-in-mouth disease when he said he had warned members of his own family that -- while some people are steering clear of Mexico -- they should be extra cautious and not get on airplanes altogether or, for that matter, go into any "confined places" where germs could spread.

"If you're out in the middle of a field and someone sneezes, that's one thing," Biden said. "If you're in a closed aircraft or closed container or closed car or closed classroom, it's a different thing." Video Watch Biden's remarks »

You don't know whether to laugh or cry. Recognizing that Biden could create a panic and cripple the airline industry, Biden spokeswoman Elizabeth Alexander went into damage control mode and put out a statement that read, "The advice he is giving family members is the same advice the administration is giving to all Americans: that they should avoid unnecessary air travel to and from Mexico. If they are sick, they should avoid airplanes and other confined public spaces, such as subways."

How sad. That's not what Biden said. His comments weren't limited to Mexico, and he wasn't talking about what people should do "if they are sick." It was about what you should do if someone else is sick. So, the administration's response initially was basically, "Are you going to believe us or your own lying ears?"

The White House later apologized "if anybody was unduly alarmed" by Biden's comments, and press secretary Robert Gibbs tried to explain what Biden "meant to say." Video Watch Gibbs' comments »

Up to now, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia, has gone only so far as to advise people to avoid nonessential travel to Mexico, which seems to be ground zero in the imminent pandemic.

It's there that at least 2,500 people may have been infected. Mexican authorities also suspect that 159 deaths have resulted from the infection, although only a small number of cases -- less than a dozen -- have been confirmed. And in most of those cases, it wasn't the flu that was fatal but some another illness that took advantage of a weakened immune system caused by the H1N1 flu.

And by all means, for the sake of beleaguered pig farmers who are bound to take a serious economic hit before this is over, let's keep referring to it that way. The real significance of Biden's boneheaded comments is that they help feed the national hysteria over the virus formerly known as swine flu.

Few Americans know more about that hysteria and the cost it incurs than U.S. pig farmers, who can probably feel pork prices dropping everything someone uses the "s-word" despite the stubborn fact that one cannot contract this virus by eating pork. It's a bum rap that has been fed by media hysteria. It's getting so I can't even watch the news without feeling the urge to reach for hand sanitizer.

Even so, countries such as Ecuador have impulsively and foolishly banned imports of U.S. pork products. That got the attention of the free trade community, who this week rushed to defend the little piggy that got maligned. U.S. trade representative Ron Kirk warned about other countries taking advantage of the crisis to wiggle out of trade agreements. As a free trader myself, I was glad to see that. Good for Kirk and the pork lobby for fighting back.

But what I waited for -- and never saw -- was a similar effort by the administration to defend the other group unfairly blamed for spreading the flu: Mexican immigrants. If the concern is with people who might visit Mexico, then we should scrutinize legal immigrants and U.S. citizens who can travel freely between the two countries. Consider that the rash of cases in New York stemmed from students who went to Cancun for spring break.

Yet, ironically, it's illegal immigrants who usually don't travel back and forth who catch the blame from those who -- like some foreign countries, regarding the trade issue -- are shamelessly taking advantage of this crisis to serve their interests. Some members of Congress and immigration restrictionists are foolishly and impulsively calling for the closing of the U.S.-Mexican border.

Kudos to President Obama and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano for instilling common sense into all this by pointing out that closing the border wouldn't do any good now that the flu has jumped the fence, so to speak.

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Meanwhile, what I want to know is this: Have many Americans have gone from scooping up immigrant workers on streetcorners to avoiding them altogether? If we're really concerned about catching the H1N1 flu from south of the border, we can always fire our housekeeper, cook our own food, mow our own lawns and babysit our own kids. I can hear the response: "Hold on, now. An imminent pandemic is no reason to do something drastic."

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ruben Navarrette.

All About InfluenzaJoseph BidenBarack Obama

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