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Commentary: Weapons of Mass Destruction
Published in Daily News Egypt on 03 - 05 - 2009

I woke up in a good mood this morning. Happy, even, which is never a good sign. Clearly disaster was imminent. Now most people, when faced with the prospect of a really good day, and all its incumbent terrors, will seek the nearest available full-scale panic option. Quick! Find something to worry about. It's a sort of innate security measure, a natural born defence mechanism against the dark arts.Today, however, I was in luck. I didn't have to look for trouble. I didn't even have to get out of bed, because, like some harbinger of doom, the bad news trickled in with the sound of a text message beeping on my phone. "Friends, it read, "the swine flu pandemic is official. Thank God. For a minute there the glass looked half full!This got me to thinking, what would we do without .?
Egypt's Greatest False Alarms:
The Great Khamsin (1997)On this fateful day I was in Zamalek in a 15th-floor flat when a massive orange cloud several kilometers high slammed into my balcony hurtling wet laundry, plants, wind chimes and wicker furniture straight into the plate glass doors. It was like some sort of biblical punishment. At any moment I expected Charlton Heston to appear in robes and beard, beat me about the head and face, and command me to repent. Apparently I wasn't the only one. Rumors of doomsday whipped through the city with the sands, and government officials had to go on radio and television to explain to the terrified populace that it was not in fact the end of the world.
The Solar Eclipse (1999)On this day I had movers coming. Shaken by the Great Khamsin of 1997, and fearing a repeat of the earthquake of 92, I had decided to shift to an apartment on the second floor; but when the sky grew dim, there were no workers to be found. They wouldn't come because of the eclipse. They had been told that if they went outside they would go blind. All we could do was hang around with our mirrors and shadow boxes hoping to catch a backwards glimpse of this rare natural event. What would have been truly rare was if the citizens of our fair city hadn't descended into a blind panic for no discernible reason.
Y2K (1999/2000)What a let down! Arguably the greatest false alarm of the last decade, it got everyone all excited for nothing. One friend in particular was absolutely convinced that as a result of worldwide computer failure airplanes would fall out of the sky, bank holdings would be wiped out, power grids would fail, and the dam would burst. He took every possible precaution - collecting financial statements and rental agreements and shipping them abroad, stocking up on food and water, buying a generator; for a while there he considered sand bags and/or an inflatable raft but he didn't want to be the only one in the neighborhood to have them on account of the looters. As midnight approached on the last day of 1999, he hunkered down with his transistor radio and waited for the worst. The next morning he was the most disappointed creature on the face of the planet.
Mad Cow Disease (2000)Although the chances of dying from mad cow disease are far less likely than being killed as a result of foot-in-mouth disease, more than a few butchers and restaurants went out of business during the ensuing pandemonium. Eating meat was entirely out of the question. And anyone who had been to a London Burger King in the past 20 years began to suffer from cold sweats, headaches, nausea, listlessness, shortness of breath, hives, hemorrhoids and persistent and uncontrolled emergency deliveries from the pharmacy. Total number of worldwide deaths: 153. When you consider that more than 5,000 people are killed annually in car accidents in this country alone, it sort of puts thing into perspective.
SARS (2003)I have no idea what this stands for, but remember quite well standing in line at the airport having my ears probed by highly trained professional nurses. The chief consequence of this seemed to be that someone in the ear probing industry made a pot of money - along with the free-floating mass anxiety of course. Once when a visiting scholar came to meet me from one of the SARS-infected regions, some of my colleagues from another university refused to sit with him on the grounds that he was a threat to their health! Total SARS deaths in Egypt: 0. Total deaths worldwide during the entire history of the epidemic: about 1,000. Total bilharzias deaths in this country every year: 3,000. Put that in your pipe and smoke it.
Bird Flu (2005)Fish and meat sales soared; chickens fell flat on their collective faces; the poultry industry tanked; moms from the Mediterranean to the Sudanese border banned anything with feathers from so much as flying over the neighborhood; and representatives from the World Health Organization were served up by Amr Edeeb on "Al-Qahira Al-Youm . There were even rumors that the river had been fouled by dead fowl and that we shouldn't drink the water, although that doesn't make any sense because . oh never mind.
Swine Flu (2009) This is the next big false alarm in Egypt. Mark my words. And remember: you read it here first. It's an icky sounding thing, but if you want to save your skin, then don't hop into your car and drive down to the local pharmacy. The chances of getting killed along the way (see above, "Mad Cow Disease ) are far higher than contracting the disease. We've seen it all before. In 1976 there was a swine flu "epidemic in the United States. Total deaths: 1. Total deaths from the vaccine: 28. Now that ought to give you something to panic about.

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