Following the first casualty in the United States attributed to swine flu and the first case of the disease in someone who has not travelled to Mexico in Spain, the World Health Organization today raised it’s alert level regarding swine flu to five – one short of a full blown pandemic.

What does that mean? A level five alert indicates that self sustaining outbreaks of the virus are present in two or more countries, and that a pandemic is in the offing. In my neck of the woods, swine flu seems to be regarded as a novelty at best, and a high grade irritant to friends who work in the health care sector and find themselves in the unenviable position of talking down people who travelled to Mexico for spring break a year ago and are now convinced that they are plague ships.

But while the news media continues it’s patented freakout, people on the ground seem relatively calm. Even as the situation grows more grave across the world, swine flu has become a running gag, something halfway clever to say when someone sneezes, or an excuse to call in sick to work. Every one seems to be convinced that this is not going to be the end of the world. And I mostly agree. Most cases of swine flu remain farily mild, and drugs seem to keep it under control. But the thing that gnaws at me is this – eventually, there is going to be an outbreak of flu that we can’t do much about, and in a world as interconnected as ours, it’s going to be a real bad one. That’s less a matter of if than when.

But when it does crop up, no one’s going to buy it. We were supposed to be scared of SARS, and we got scared, and nothing happened. Avian flu was supposed to wipe out humanity, and we all shook in our boots, and nothing happened. Now swine flu has reached the highest pandemic alert level ever set by the WHO, and though the media is abuzz, people on the street can barely manage a shrug. Whether it’s because we feel invincible after the last couple of high profile disease scares, or just that we’re tired of being afraid, people just seem to take for granted that there’s nothing to worry about, not really, even though every indication is that the spread of the virus is going to get worse before it gets better, with a coming level 6 alert, denoting a full fledged pandemic, practically a foregone conclusion.

I’m not saying that swine flu is definitely going to be the end of the world. But at some point, something is go to be. So, why not this?

In lighter news, the U.S. GDP  numbers came in today, and the news looks grim at first glance – the overall economy shrank by a worse than predicted 6.1% in the first quarter of 2009. 

But the numbers might not be as bad as they seem at first glance. A lack of government spending and inventory draw downs (companies selling stock on hand rather than ordering more items to put on shelves) pushed the number down artificially. More importantly, the report indicated good news for one of the bellwethers of an economic recovery – consumer spending was up a better than expected 2.2%. This perceived upswing in consumer confidence has some analysts betting on a brighter than expected second quarter, but with the savings rate continuing to rise (inexplicably) alongside consumer spending, that may be an overly rosy scenario. 

Even if this is a bottom, it may not be the bottom, as analysts are predicting that this recession will make a  W shaped recovery, with a false recovery arriving in the middle, just before another, albeit more shallow, crash. And even if this is the beginning of an actual and factual period of growth, the things that most people associate with financial well being – like steady employment – won’t recover for quite a while yet, with unemployment numbers likely to continue trending upward. But for right now, it may be best to concentrate on the good news. Celebrate a little – go buy yourself something pretty. At least until the stimulus package starts working it’s way through state legislatures in earnest, the economics of happy thoughts may be all we have to keep us warm for a while.