Flu Season Greetings

Advent is a season of hope and expectation, a time of waiting: for the Christ child, for prophecy to be fulfilled, for severe muscle aches and a temperature of 104.

This year, depending on your religious beliefs, Santa Claus may or may not be coming to town, but the bird flu definitely is, and it won’t matter if you’ve been bad or good. It will be bad.

Every major international health organization, including our own Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (motto: THE SKY IS FALLING!), say that it is not a matter of if a pandemic will sweep the globe, but when. And those of you with the annoying habit of saying “bless you” at every sneeze will be of little help.

The virus started in Asia, where it can be produced more cheaply, and is slowly spreading west, following the ancient trade route established by a dispirited Marco Polo returning from the east with the bad news that his countrymen didn’t, in fact, invent spaghetti. By April the virus could be in Paris, where fashion experts are predicting surgical masks will be all the rage.

Originating as a bird-borne disease, the virus spread first among the chicken farms of Vietnam, where poor farmers lived and even slept in close proximity to their flocks. (Don’t laugh. You sleep with your dog, right? Which, in some Asian cultures, would be like taking a pot roast to bed.) Scientists don’t know exactly how the avian flu virus mutates into a strain that can infect humans (personally, I blame teenagers), but members of the Kansas Board of Education were more confident, proclaiming that its mysterious complexity can mean only one thing: It was created by intelligent design. Turns out, if something’s too complicated to easily understand, it must have come from the hand of God. (I’d like to take this moment to thank God for my Mr. Coffee. I don’t know exactly how it works, but it’s a real blessing in the morning.)

Fortunately, the Bush administration has been swift in its response to the viral threat, because—let’s face it—the prospect of millions dying from the flu makes a great distraction from a really bad news month at the White House. Administration officials wisely decided the federal response should not repeat the mistakes made after Hurricane Katrina, a natural disaster that, because of a history of misplaced fiscal priorities and market-driven decisions, did far more damage than it should have. So the president has been brutally honest with the country regarding the coming pandemic, and told us that, because of a history of misplaced fiscal priorities and market-driven decisions, vaccines are no longer produced in sufficient quantity.

Thus, medicine will be rationed first to the elderly, then to the sick and infirm, which prompted former vice presidential chief of staff Lewis “Scooter” Libby to ask, “If you’re in jail, can you qualify for a flu shot as, like, a shut-in?”

Actually, I’m not so sure I want a flu shot, since the last time I got one I immediately came down with flu. On the other hand, I got it over with right away. (Applying that same logic, to guarantee that your next family car trip is accident-free, make sure you back over the mailbox on the way out.) Apparently, I now qualify as elderly, since last week a waitress handed me the menu with the “Seniors Specials.” But I sent her away with a youthful wave of my hand, telling her to mind her own business and bring me the chipped beef. (It’s easier to chew.)

The economic impact of the flu pandemic is not yet clear, although county fairs across the country have reportedly shut down their kissing booths, and candy manufacturers have postponed introduction of the new “Share-A-Lick” all-day sucker. Additionally, avian petting zoos across the nation are expected to close up shop. (Parent: “It’s okay, honey, the bird’s just sleeping.” Kid, poking it with a stick, scientifically: “I don’t think so, Mom. By the way, can I bring it home?”)

For most of us, the best defense against the coming pandemic is to stay inside our homes for the duration of winter, where we’ll be insulated by layers of unconscionably high heating bills stuffed into our mailbox. Because the oil industry is still working on its first $1 trillion profit, I’m using alternative means to heat my house. For example, I plan to put a toaster in the middle of my living room, and to always carry one of our cats when I get up to move around or to put another log in to toast. The cats are warm, soft, and, in one case, as big as a beanbag chair. (It’s nice to know that finally there is another use for these pets besides just companionship and meat.)

In the meantime, drink lots of fluids, exercise, and eat wisely. And this Christmas, keep your distance from the partridge in the pear tree. Especially if it sneezes.

Ed Spivey Jr. is art director of Sojourners.

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