Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Panic! The Big Flu is Coming...

...and it's going to wipe us all out...

Collective panic is the one thing society can't do without. Part of the holy trilogy that also consists of collective mourning (Diana and Jade Goody to mention but two) and collective hysteria (the World Cup on the big fuckoff screen while Carlsberg-Tetleys count the cash), it comes in cycles, regular as clockwork.

We suckle on scaremongering like a baby to a teat, feeding on the notion that The Big Plague is Coming like a periodical reminder of our mortality, which is probably why disaster movies routinely top cinema charts worldwide.

So let's just hope that the current panic surrounding the swine flu is nothing more than cyclical hypochondria like it has been a dozen times before.

The term "swine flu" first cropped up in 1976 when America's top health official warned: "The indication is that we will see a return of the 1918 flu virus that is the most virulent form of flu. In 1918, half a million people died. The projections are that this virus will kill one million Americans". In the end dozens did die - but it was from the vaccine campaign.

And what to make of the fear surrounding Ebola amidst the chants of "It's coming home/ it's coming home/ Ebola is coming home"?

Then there was SARS. Tipped as the one thing that was going to obliterate the world's population, it resulted in a grand total of 71 cases and zero deaths in the US and not a single one in the UK.

Nothing, however, like the Avian Flu. "The World Health Organisation has warned that bird flu could be more serious than Sars", reported the Daily Mail in 2006 after a strain was found in a few chickens in Devon. They added that "it could cause some 50,000 deaths in the UK". Not quite what happened, of course, but enough to get George W Bush to hand the pharmaceutical giants "$7.1 billion to prepare for avian flu".

In the end there were 257 deaths worldwide - which is a paltry figure when placed against the hundreds of thousands that die every year from normal flu.

But exactly like it was with the apocalyptic predictions of "the Millennium Bug", the media are on top of their game when they build up paranoia and work people up, preying on our innermost fears and knee-jerk reactions - but when it turns out that it was just a nice dollop of hypochondria it's as if nothing had ever been written. Not a line.

So who's benefiting from all this? You can bet the big fat drug corporations aren't crying. With the UK alone "commissioning 30 million doses", at emergency rates, like Simon Carr wrote in the Independent, "the profits, at least, will be apocalyptic".


Francis Fukuya Mah said...

But people get a peculiar thrill from health scares; it’s the same thing that drives them to complementary medicine. We like to feel informed, but we don’t want to feel guilty about our unhealthy lifestyles; we like to feel that we can get one up on doctors, but we can’t spend the time reading up the whole of medicine; when we’re worried about our health, we feel out of control, and we want to get some of that control and understanding back.

Lizz said...

check out "The power of nightmares" on you tube. All about using fear in the media to control people.

Helen Highwater said...

The language being used by the media is telling. The front of the Sun called the two patients in Scotland "suspects" and there's a lot of latent anti-immigration wank. It doesn't help of course that it's coming from Mexico, which means that the White Power nutjobs in the US can add it to their anti-Latino rhetoric.

The immigrants are coming! And they're bringing the flu!!! RUN FOR THE HILLS!

(really, it's like no-one's ever read Barry Glassners' Culture of Fear).

And the masks won't help. It'll reduce the chances of you spreading it if you have it, but it won't stop you from contracting it.

Anita said...

Wholly agree with Helen H.
I thought exactly that and after reading a few spectacularly ignorant US forums on the subject I concluded that this is gonna turn into another vehicle to rant at "beaners" and similar atrocities.

The idea of keeping it into perspective would be more welcome than 30 million doses of Tamiflu right now.