Paulomi Mullick palpitates with fear very time there is a caller, the doorbell sounding like a death knell to her over-sensitive ears. Opening the door merely a few inches, the 34-year-old Mumbai housewife talks to the visitor through the thick folds of a gent’s handkerchief and sends him on his way as speedily as possible. Slamming the door shut, she dabs her hand and face with a sanitiser and then proceeds to wipe the front door (along with handle, latch and bell) with a strong disinfectant. She repeats the drill with every caller.

Do the symptoms read uncomfortably familiar? If they do and you find yourself exhibiting the same syndrome, you could be suffering from a malaise almost as bad as the actual swine flu, which is, the “chronic fear of contracting swine flu”. With the media occasionally blowing things out of proportion and with a dozen sinister-sounding rumours doing the rounds, the (mis)information overload is making many a citizen buckle down under the weight of fears.

Fears real and imaginary

While some of these fears are real, a great many continue to be imaginary. “A casual sneeze or a cough (perfectly excusable at this time of the year with fluctuating weather conditions) and you could suddenly find everybody around you running for cover!” exclaims an irate Mumbai resident Parthiv Rana. Fear is evident all over the city as shopping malls announcing festival sales continue to stretch out forlorn and much-awaited movies due for release are suffering from the phenomenon of stillbirth with cinema halls being ordered to be shut temporarily (“Kaminey” being a case in point). The drastically reduced number of people on the streets can be seen moving around wearing a variety of protective face masks. Does the situation truly call for such extreme measures?

“There are so many disease-causing germs and viruses moving around us at any one moment in time that it would seem like a miracle that we emerge alive at the end of each day! How do you know that your rickshaw driver, barber or your fruit vendor chopping the pineapples is not HIV positive or suffering from Hepatitis B? My suggestion is to take a balanced view of matters. Educate yourself about the symptoms and preventive measures of swine flu from a reliable source, build up your immune system with good food, ample rest and optimum exercise and carry on with life,” advises general physician Dr. Ashoke Bhattacharya. He also cautions people against rushing for swine flu testing based on a couple of hazy symptoms as visiting these testing centres (with the possibility of the presence of affected patients) could often do more harm than good. To the families of the affected, he cites the cases of 10-year-old Mukta Vaidya from Pune who, after a week’s isolation at Naidu hospital is recuperating at home and rearing to get back to her usual routine. Likewise, the example of the 33-year-old H1N1-positive patient who survived after being on a ventilator for 10 days at L.H. Hiranandani Hospital (which the hospital CEO Dr. Sujit Chatterjee describes as a “landmark development”) serves as a heartening story of survival.

Eerily quiet

The city has gone into an unnatural state of calm with schools, colleges and coaching classes closing at a time when academic sessions generally start with a bang. Rumours doing the rounds in the city have got most Mumbaikars confused. With the dahi-handi celebrations during Janmashtami being markedly subdued, there is palpable fear in the city about what Ganesh Chathurthi might get with it. “The Ganesh Utsav is a time when crowds and revelry in the city reach explosive heights. The medical risk being what it is at the moment, the situation appears really scary. Similarly, while open airy venues for Ganesh Puja might be safe, the theme pandals with their narrow, cave-like interiors (where devotees cluster closely for the aarti) should be banned this year,” says collegian and festival organiser Tushar Gaikwad emphatically.

With so many diverse viewpoints and so many words of advice coming in from all quarters, the swine flu as a medical phenomenon is fast taking on epic proportions. Bindu Raikar, a believer in the holistic approach, feels that it is imperative to keep the mind as healthy as the body. “The traditional practice of taking tulsi leaves, ginger and clove internally can create wonders in raising the resistance power. Likewise, a few basic pranayam exercises go a long way in strengthening the respiratory system,” she advises. The bottom line in the various schools of thought in these uncertain times appears to be common: stay calm, stay prepared, stay positive and half the battle is won.