And Turn

Why it is okay to panic

Everyone gets the flu. Influenza sucks and then you get over it. Or you don’t. Lots of people die of it every year.

So why the panic?

Well the obvious reasons are that it’s a new strain for which we have limited natural immunities.1 , It’s likely already in whatever country you happen to be in.2

Those are scary, but no reason to overreact. These are reasons to be concerned and take precautions.  So why did the WHO and CDC overreact so?

The reason to panic is something else altogether.

Fisher’s Fundamental Theorem of Natural Selection: “The rate of increase in fitness of any organism at any time is equal to its genetic variance in fitness at that time.” As populations get more varied, they tend to grow more fit (variance can never be negative). Exposure, in person-to-person, aerial transmissions, grows exponentially depending on the radius of the people around them. Each exposure creates a new group, increasing the variance of the population. But if exposure grows exponentially and variance is is exposure, then variance grows exponentially. If fitness increases with variance, then as the outbreak grows, not only does the swine flu become harder to fight because there are more people to treat, but the virus also becomes stronger as it goes.

This simple explanation is why people are afraid of it and why the WHO is right to panic. You might have heard it by another name: fear that the swine flu will mutate.  Mutation is only one of the many ways that fitness can increase (or change in general), but it is what we fear because the precise change in a genome would allow the virus to multiply more effectively in humans.

So we panic now and hope we can crush it before it gets unstoppable.

… You probably already knew that.  I just thought you should be reminded of it, lest the lack of imminent danger provoke a flippant response that would be devastating in the future.

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