College’s H1N1 policy is hogwash

I had a minor freakout in Sawyer last Sunday night. I’m not afraid to admit it – it happens to the best of us. The thing is though, mine had nothing to do with an upcoming organic chemistry test or a looming political science paper. In fact, it all started with a sore throat. I’d been feeling a little under the weather over the weekend, and as more and more news reports began to surface about the swine flu (also known as type A H1N1 virus) outbreak in Mexico, I self-diagnosed and immediately began fearing the worst. Fortunately, after doing some research and coming to the conclusion that my fears were ludicrous and unfounded, I chilled out a bit.

My realization made the e-mail I got a few days later regarding changes in dining hall and Snack Bar policies due to the swine flu outbreak all the more surprising. Don’t get me wrong – I appreciate the fact that the College is taking steps to keep its students safe and healthy. I’m just not sure swine flu is as big a deal as we think it is, nor are a lot of the new policies necessarily the most effective.

First, there’s still debate as to whether swine flu is any worse than normal flu, medically speaking. The symptoms are almost identical. While tragically there have been numerous deaths from swine flu in Mexico, those numbers appear to be stabilizing, and in any case, pale in comparison to the hundreds of thousands of deaths that result from normal influenza every year. Swine flu, like the flu itself, can be dangerous if untreated or undetected. However, comparisons to the 1918 flu pandemic or the Black Death may be a little premature.

Even if swine flu doesn’t necessarily spell the end of the human race, it’s still a good idea for Williams to be extra cautious, so long as the risk is there, right? Of course. As is the case during the normal flu season, we should be careful about washing our hands, covering our sneezes and not sharing cups or utensils. However, beyond that, a lot of the College’s new policies are misguided or more troubling than they’re worth.
Take some of the new dining regulations, for instance. While having ketchup pre-distributed into little cups or using plastic utensils may make us a little safer, it’s a misallocation of resources that ultimately probably doesn’t make up for in safety what it lacks in efficiency. It was the same story with the temporary closing of EcoCafe and the ’82 Grill. Still, perhaps some of the least sensible regulations come at Snack Bar – on this past Friday night, students were not allowed to order grilled cheese sandwiches or buffalo fries, though tuna melts and regular fries were okay. At best, policies like these are arbitrary, and at worst they make eating at Williams an ordeal and don’t do that much to stop a relatively mild airborne disease.

These concerns become even more legitimate when one considers what the College isn’t doing to stop swine flu. Anyone who’s been to a First Fridays or a tent party or even a smaller get-together knows that gatherings like those can be veritable Petri dishes. The same goes for the gym or for the very act of living in a dormitory and sharing a bathroom. When nearly everything about college in some way facilitates the spread of infectious disease, forbidding students from making their own salads seems like cold comfort.

All things considered, there’s no need to worry this much about swine flu. The most serious cases have all been in Mexico, and many of the deaths there can probably be blamed as much on poor healthcare as on the disease itself. If anything, let’s try to look on the bright side: We’ve at least been able to stay clear of H1N1 longer than Amherst, which has a handful of confirmed cases. Karma for those notorious small pox blankets? It’s a possibility.

Peter Drivas ’11 is from New York City, N.Y. He lives in Garfield.