It seems like only yesterday that Americans were panicked over what media, perhaps a tad hastily, referred to as the "deadly virus" that was, as the Boston Herald put it, "stalking" us.

Actually it was the day before yesterday. I know because I was eating lunch at the mall when a woman seated behind me began clearing her throat. After a few hacks it became apparent she was coughing. In an instant four nearby heads spun around as if to say: OMG! Swine Flu!

Since the culprit was directly behind me, I couldn't turn. Too obvious. But my mind was racing: Was she wearing a mask? If not, was she at least coughing into her sleeve as media were advising? What if her outfit doesn't have sleeves? And what does she look like? Is she, you know, Mexican?

If this had been a diner scene in "Seinfeld," George would have exclaimed, "Lupus! She's got lupus!"

Lupus is a serious but noncontagious disease known to comedy writers to sound funny.

Flu is also serious but not at all funny, because roughly 36,000 Americans die from various strains each year.

And then there's swine flu, which may not be as serious as we were led to believe, and whose humorous qualities are only now becoming apparent. As of this writing there have been only two confirmed swine flu fatalities in the U.S., so perhaps what we've had, to borrow a line from "Cool Hand Luke," is "failure to communicate."

What if instead of filth-wallowing swine, this type of flu originated in, say, rabbits. Would so many people have been frightened by headlines warning, "Bunny Bug Hops Across Nation"?

And while we're being honest, what if the outbreak had occurred in Canada rather than Mexico? Would we react so sternly if our well-scrubbed, legally-immigrating neighbors to the north took ill?

Then there's "pandemic," a seriously misunderstood term. Although the word deals with the geographical scope of an epidemic, it sounds as if it raises an epidemic to a higher medical level - sort of like "Condition Orange." Speaking of which, Americans are finally learning to ignore the announcements at airports advising that Homeland Security has "raised" the threat level to "orange," a level at which it has been stuck since August 10, 2006.

The H1N1 flu, to use its less onerous name, put the Obama Administration in a place that could be described as being between a cough and Katrina. Overreact by shutting down the nation's already critically ill business and commerce, and there would be severe economic penalties. Fail to react swiftly, as the Bush Administration did with Hurricane Katrina, and the fallout could be even worse.

That's probably what Vice President Biden was mulling over when he mentioned avoiding planes and subways. The crack didn't do much to help either health or transit - but most Americans, primed by relentless cable-TV alerts, knew all too well what he was talking about. Biden's rhetoric had reached pandemic level.

In some states, where schools were ordered to close whenever a single case of piggy flu was confirmed, there were reports that thousands of teens, with little else to do, spent entire days in malls. Come to think of it, that female flutist (my word for a flu-carrying citizen who terrorizes those nearby by coughing during a possible pandemic) sitting behind me during lunch at the mall may have been a student!

For all I know she spent spring break on some Mexican beach. I'll bet she hadn't washed her hands once during her meal. And maybe she was eating pork!

Fortunately, by week's end the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Richard Besser, was saying that perhaps swine flu isn't as bad as first feared, and he advised states to rethink the school-closure thing.

He added an observation that will probably be remembered long after the swine flu story of '09 is forgotten.

"It may be that pigs have more to fear from people than people have to fear from pigs.''

© Peter Funt. This column first appeared in The Monterey Herald.

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