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Londoners aren’t in a flap

While official bird flu warnings reach fever pitch, the public seems to be keeping a cooler head.

Josie Appleton

Topics Politics

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After the 7/7 bombs, Londoners went about their everyday lives in the face of danger. So how are they coping with the latest (albeit hypothetical) threat, bird flu?

Panic headlines lead the morning papers, and government officials warn that it is ‘inevitable’ that the virus will strike the UK. But judging by a spot-check of central London commuters, the public seems to be keeping a cooler head.

Many just switch off, saying that they’ll pay attention when there is real danger. Twenty-two-year-old Reena Patel, who works in advertising, says that ‘When I see an article about bird flu, I skip to the next page. If the virus reaches London, I’ll say, “okay, what am I going to do?”. At the moment it’s just an overreaction’. Some are becoming savvy to the succession of scares, each of which commandeers the headlines for a while then disappears without trace. ‘If you believed everything they said, you wouldn’t go out, you wouldn’t eat chicken…’, said Rod Miles, a 44-year-old small businessman.

People may feel a twinge of worry, but often choose to ignore it. ‘When I see bird flu in newspapers, I get worried, but then I discard it and get on with life’, said Ruth Freedman, 32. ‘There’s a lot of scaremongering. I try to be optimistic – you have to choose which things you worry about.’ If there are concerns, these are often private, at the back of people’s minds. ‘I haven’t discussed bird flu with anybody’, said one secretary in her early forties. ‘It’s not a watercooler topic of conversation.’

There is a healthy scepticism about abounding ‘what if?’ scenarios – what if the flu virus mutates, what if it’s carried by migratory birds to Britain. ‘They say it’s inevitable that bird flu will come to the UK, but I don’t see how they know that’, said Ruth Freedman. Another woman confessed: ‘I’ve slightly switched off because of the wooliness of it all’. Denise, a New Zealander living in London, noted that ‘There don’t seem to be any hard facts. On talkshows they are saying it’s because people travel. Is it? What are the chances of a mutation?’. Meanwhile, Reena judged that official surmise and conjecture was just not helpful: ‘The government shouldn’t issue warnings unless it’s sure.’

Some of this scepticism comes from a distrust of officialdom. The more the government tries to use scares as a way of connecting with the public, the more the public turns away. Officials are often seen as irrational incompetents who, like flu-afflicted birds, behave in very strange ways. ‘Nobody will listen to the government because they are clueless’, judges Jim, a 44-year-old salesman. Rod Miles says that ‘the government is just scaremongering’. One explanation for this is that officials are covering their backs – ‘they can’t not say anything now unless there’s a problem later’, commented a man in his forties.

For some, the idea that the government is scaremongering coexists with the idea that it isn’t doing enough. ‘I’m concerned that the government isn’t doing what it’s meant to be doing’, said one thirtysomething woman. This shows the downside to people’s mistrust of officials. At root seems to lie a sense of disempowerment, a sense that the government is working against us. In some circumstances, this fosters independence, a scepticism about overblown warnings; but disempowerment also leads to a call for more protection. Both responses can be uncritical, a blanket suspicion or a blanket call for help. Which raises the question: if there was a real threat, would the public listen to official advice then?

A few people say that they are worried about bird flu, and are taking precautions. Interestingly, this seems to be particularly prevalent among twentysomethings. ‘I’m scared, man, I’ve stopped eating birds and switched to fish’, said John, a 24-year-old from Brazil. Denise said that she ‘might be reticent about eating chicken’; while Wendy, a 51-year-old estate agent, said that she was wary to eat duck. Jesper Osterland, 22, from Sweden, has already planned his escape route. ‘It’s kind of scary. I work in a restaurant, so I get exposed to other people’s dishes, which could put me in some danger. If it does come here I’ll escape back home, to my town in Sweden’.

These seem to be idiosyncratic precautions, more about self-reassurance than anything else. Certainly, few are patrolling the country on the lookout for sick birds. Personal precautions can be whimsical, like a lifestyle choice. ‘I should be eating more fish anyway’, said John. Some people might avoid chicken, but they do it in an absentminded way that suggests they could easily forget and tuck into a KFC.

So headline writers and public health officials might be getting worked up, but it doesn’t seem that Britain is going mad over bird flu.

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Topics Politics

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