The death tolls that don’t make many headlines

spiked editor Mick Hume's Notebook in The Times (London).

Mick Hume

Mick Hume

Topics Politics

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  • The official death toll is 56, and the final body count is set to be many times lower than the hysterical estimates of tens of thousands of deaths.

This is the good news that you probably missed, hidden away among the apocalyptic headlines from New Orleans. It comes from a UN report, published this week, into the nuclear accident at Chernobyl in 1986 – the disaster that we were warned would spread cancers, infertility and two-headed sheep from the former Soviet Union to the Lake District.

Talking about death tolls that do not make many headlines, how many people have died from vCJD – “the human version of ‘mad cow’ disease” – in the UK so far this year? The answer is: two. This brings the number of deaths since the BSE-vCJD panic took off in the mid-1990s to 150. I am no statistician, but 150 deaths seem some way short of the up to half a million that leading authorities predicted.

There is a lesson here about the way that we view man-made and natural disasters. For years, Chernobyl and BSE-vCJD have been held up as proof that our future is threatened by new risks that result from humanity’s scientific and technological advances, such nuclear power and modern farming techniques.

Ulrich Beck, the sociology professor whose work on “the risk society” influenced new Labour, declared that Chernobyl demonstrated “the failure of techno-scientific rationality in the face of growing risks and threats from civilisation”. During the “mad cow” panic, John Gray, the British philosopher, blamed our “culture of technological mastery of nature” for creating “incalculable but catastrophic risks”, and suggested that a significant CJD outbreak could be seen as “a symptom of nature’s rebellion against human hubris”. Notions about the dangers of hubris (what we used to call progress) have since become mainstream, in the backlash against everything from GM crops to the MMR vaccination.

Recent events should remind us, however, that reality does not always follow the doom-mongers’ script. The dramatic dangers to life and health today are less new-fangled “risks and threats from civilisation” than old-fashioned risks and threats from hurricanes, tsunamis and diseases. Far from being the problem, the advance of human ingenuity, technology and civilisation offers us the best chance of protection.

We cannot, and should not try to, eliminate all risk from life. But we would do well to cut out the doom-mongering. The UN report on Chernobyl concludes that people in the region have been affected less by radiation exposure than by exposure to overblown fears about it, which has left them suffering from “paralysing fatalism”. That almost sounds like a fate worse than death.

  • New Orleans has long been popular with tourists keen for a safe taste of the seamier side of American life.

For the past fortnight it seems that the ghost town has played host to another breed of voyeuristic tourists – television crews searching for the most garish snapshot of ‘America’s underbelly’.

As if the news were not bad enough, it has often been made to seem worse by a type of reporting for which no horror story can ever be too horrific. What began as the grim story of a natural disaster soon became a grimmer moral tale of man’s inhumanity to man and woman. Too much of the media have resembled an international outlet for the sort of rumours that always spread like wildfire in disaster zones, reporting riots, rapes and murders (including of children) inside the Superdome as if they were established facts. Yet all we knew for certain was that conditions were terrible. By the middle of this week a New Orleans police superintendent was still making clear: ‘We don’t have any substantiated rapes.’ No rape victims, murder victims’ relatives or witnesses had emerged. By then, however, the media had moved on to the alleged threat of cholera and typhoid.

With some of these TV reporters, you get the feeling that their ideal story would be to report ‘live’ from just outside Dante’s seventh circle of Hell, while speculating on whether a government cover-up is hiding the existence of an eighth circle. Jon Snow, who heroically presented Channel 4 News from New Orleans in his wellies, tells us in his self-effacing way: ‘To be a hack caught up in this is tough.’ Couldn’t somebody have airlifted them out of there sooner?

Mick Hume is editor of spiked
This article is republished from The Times (London)

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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