On A Plane With A Masked Female Passenger

On the first leg of my return flight today I traveled with a passenger who wore one of those white cotton masks covering her mouth and nose.

Immediately I began to wonder:  has there been an outbreak of an exotic disease somewhere in the world that I haven’t heard about?  Or, was this woman just ill, and trying to be somewhat sensitive to the health of her fellow passengers.  (I say “somewhat,” because I can’t believe that those surgical masks really provide much protection, and if she really was sick the rest of us on that confined metal tube with filled recycled air were likely to get whatever germs she might have been trying to contain.  So, she really wasn’t that thoughtful after all — if she was sick, the thoughtful thing would have been to refrain from traveling and exposing the rest of us.)

But perhaps she was worried about getting germs from me, and the woman with the two kids, and the guy wearing the sportcoat and the pork pie hat.  Maybe she was just one of those hypochondriacs who worry about going out in public due to a Howard Hughes-like fear of airborne exposure to the latest strain of bacteria or flu.  I felt vaguely offended by that possibility.  Or maybe she wears a mask because she is famous and is traveling incognito.  Or maybe she just wears the mask to keep people like me on their toes and paying attention to their fellow passengers.

I’ll be paying extra close attention to whether I get the sniffles, a scratchy throat, and a cough over the next day or so.


Not Scary . . . Scary

In modern America, we are bombarded with news articles, couched in frightening terms, about claimed risks. Stories like those about flesh-eating bacteria, or flammable children’s nightwear, or the chance that a kid playing baseball might get hit in the chest between heartbeats are routinely found in the news media. Most of these claimed risks are minor. Moreover, the drumbeat of alarmist rhetoric has made many Americans jaded about such warnings.

A new disease that has jumped from species to species and that is passed by airborne particles or casual contact, on the other hand — now that is scary. If you doubt that, read And the Band Played On, by Randy Shilts, about the early days of AIDS, or any book about the Spanish Flu pandemic after the end of World War I. The WHO is right to urge strong action and raise concerns in response to the outbreak of swine flu in Mexico.