A tale of two panics

Why are we in less of a flap about bird flu now that it has arrived in Britain than we were 18 months ago when it was a ‘spectre’ in Asia?

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

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I have a question: why are we in less of a flap about bird flu now that it has arrived in Britain than we were 18 months ago when it was a far-away ‘spectre’ looming around the outskirts of Europe?

At the end of 2005, as bird flu spread from Vietnam and Thailand to Turkey, the British and American press was full of horror-inducing headlines such as ‘MUTANT FLU WILL KILL 50 MILLION’. Sections of the press warned, apparently on the basis of government predictions, that an outbreak here could kill 300,000 Brits, ‘mainly kids, mums-to-be and the elderly’ (1). Back then, bird flu exercised the political and media imaginations like nothing else, leading to some pretty hysterical claims about another Spanish Flu-style pandemic that might wipe out a generous chunk of mankind.

Now that bird flu has actually landed, striking one of Bernard Matthews’ turkey farms in Suffolk, the flu-fear seems far more muted. Bird flu has become a page-three story rather than a page-one story. The government says ‘Don’t panic’. Even the Sun, which 18 months ago published frontpage Dad’s Army-style maps showing the apparently relentless, red-arrowed progression of bird flu from Asia into Europe, seems to have given up the ghost. Yesterday it reported the news that one of the vets working at the bird flu-struck farm in Suffolk had fallen ill in a single column on page 9, way behind news of Chris and Ingrid Tarrant’s divorce and a Man Utd fan’s £8million lottery win (2).

Why is bird flu apparently more scary when it’s ‘over there’ than when it’s right here? How come an animal disease caused British politicians and the media to fly into a panic when it was killing chickens and fairly small numbers of humans in south-east Asia, yet when it actually arrived in Britain they seem (for the most part) to have taken it in their stride?

This tale of two bird flu panics offers a striking bird’s-eye-view of the ‘politics of fear’. It shows how fear is a free-floating agent, which can leap from one alleged threat to another with little regard for the true level of the threat posed. That the West seemed more terrified of bird flu when it was in Asia than when it arrived in the West suggests that the focus of our fears is not determined by facts or stats or the measurability of the alleged threat – by how scared we really ought to be – but rather by a powerful political and cultural view of humans as vulnerable, at risk, prey to forces beyond our control (and often beyond our borders). Sometimes, as in 2005, it is bird flu that provides the narrative for this general fearful outlook, while at other times it is terrorism, paedophilia, global warming, or something else.

The most striking – and scary – thing about the bird flu story is less the migration of diseased birds around the world, most of which are dealt with pretty swiftly, and more this arbitrary migration of fear from one thing to another. It blows problems out of proportion and distorts rational debate about everything from terrorism to turkey burgers. We should try to contain and treat this migratory fear contagion alongside any diseased ducks that might flap and quack our way.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not calling on officialdom to panic more about bird flu. It did quite enough of that in 2005, and it is still doing too much of it in the more muted panic today. The bird flu outbreak in Suffolk was speedily brought under control, with the destruction and disposal of 160,000 turkeys. Yes, it was the H5N1 strain which can infect humans. But according to the government’s chief scientist the chances of a human contracting bird flu in Britain is around 100 million to 1. The 164 humans who have contracted and succumbed to it in the developing world lived in close quarters with diseased birds, even coming into contact with their blood and faeces. Because Britain is industrialised, with factory-based farming, it’s highly unlikely that any Brits will find themselves in a similar degraded relationship with the flu-ridden carcass of a spent chicken or turkey. As Mick Hume pointed out in The Times, there wouldn’t even be a health risk from eating those sick Suffolk turkeys ‘so long as you cooked them first’ (3). There is of course the potential for a human outbreak, as there was in parts of Asia and in Turkey.

Despite these facts, however, there have still been handwringing headlines about human pandemics and the ‘dangerous and diseased’ world of factory farming (4). Some merchants of doom – particularly the authors of books on the terrible threat of a mutant bird flu human pandemic – are doing their best to make today’s more measured panic into a massive overblown one. Writing in the Guardian, Mike Davis, author of The Monster at Our Door: The Global Threat of Avian Flu, says: ‘Just when most of us thought it was safe to go back into the water (or at least eat chicken and turkey), H5N1 raises its black dorsal fin and reminds us that it has unfinished business with the human race….’ (5) Such commentary is a reminder that there’s still some mileage in the bird flu panic, and it could yet spin out of control as it did in 2005.

Yet the flu fearmongering today remains fairly isolated, certainly in comparison with what happened 18 months ago. It is worth reminding ourselves how widespread was the bird flu panic in October-December 2005. The trigger was the discovery of H5N1 among turkeys in south-west Turkey on 13 October 2005, and then later among turkeys in Romania. This caused panic throughout the EU and also in America. Bird flu was frontpage news in Britain. ‘BIRD FLU CREEPING CLOSER’ declared the Sun, alongside a map showing vulnerable little Britain threatened by big arrows representing the disease’s spread into Europe. Leaked documents showed that the government had devised a £200million ‘action plan’ to combat a potential human pandemic, buying millions of vaccines and planning, in the event of an outbreak amongst humans, to provide armed guards for medics and dig ‘plague-pit style’ mass graves (6). Even though there was no evidence of bird flu arriving in America, the commentary there was, if anything, even more hysterical. Forget terrorism, President George W Bush was urged by his critics; apparently bird flu was the real ‘chief bioterrorist in our midst’, threatening to burst America’s ‘bubble of privilege’ and kill ‘100million people while leaving entire cities devastated’ (7, 8).

That fear of bird flu was greater when it was a distant threat, compared with now when the disease is right here in Britain, is revealing. It suggests the politics of fear becomes more animated by the spectre of far-away threats, by distant doom lurking beyond our borders; indeed, it seems it was the very unpredictable, unknowable nature of bird flu in 2005, the fact that its movement could not be closely monitored or its potential impact on our societies measured, that made it a natural focus for the free-floating culture of fear.

In our age of the ‘precautionary principle’ – the idea that scientists, medical researchers and all of us should err on the side of caution in everything we do, lest we unleash unforeseen, unpredicted, unexpected consequences – our societies seem particularly fearful of the unknown (9). In 2005, bird flu, an unseen disease carried by birds flying high above us, became The Great Unknown. Today, by contrast, as the disease touches down, it has been exposed as a pretty mundane animal affliction that we can bring under control without much sweat.

In 2005, the bird flu panic was also fanned by prejudices about teeming cities in the Third World, which are apparently hotbeds of disease and a threat to stability in the West. One commentator said the potential for a human pandemic was heightened by the fact that ‘throughout the Third World, impoverished human beings have been gathering in far greater urban concentrations than anything imaginable a century ago, and any of these are potential hatcheries for a pandemic’ (10). Another argued that these ‘large concentrations of humans…increase the speed of evolution of viruses’ (11). Mirroring the debate about terrorism, the 2005 great bird flu panic was driven in part by fear and suspicion of Johnny Foreigner – and by barely concealed prejudice against industrialisation in the Third World. This wasn’t only an immeasurable disease; it was also from ‘over there’, yet another toxic threat to Western civilisation from that ‘hatchery’ of disease that is the developing world.

The 2005 panic was underpinned by fear about cross-border movement, too. There was widespread concern that people might carry the disease from one country to another. In late 2005, the BBC reported that ‘air travel could be among the first casualties of a global panic’, as various Western governments submitted their plans for how to ‘prevent the disease spreading’ (12). Mike Davis argued that ‘globalisation and global air travel have made the spread of a pandemic, once started, almost instantaneous’ (13). The World Health Organisation proposed more checks at airports. Here, the fact that bird flu existed mostly in Asia in 2005 provided a focus for broader concerns about the movement of people. Fear of human migration, of untracked, unchecked human movement, was projected on to the fevered discussion of bird migration.

Eighteen months ago the animal disease became a focus for human fears. It was not factual evidence or predictive measurements of the disease’s impact that drove the political and media hysteria in the West in 2005. Rather, the great bird flu panic was underwritten by an already-existing culture of fear and uncertainty, by a view of humans as both threat and threatened. It’s striking that many of the same concerns raised in the terrorism debate since 2001 were repeated in the bird flu scare of 2005: fear of strange foreign cities and their inhabitants; fear of air travel; fear of being infected by disease, whether from smallpox-wielding terrorists or The Birds. It is also striking that on both issues, much of the debate has been speculative and anticipatory: in the terror discussion commentators fret that we will be struck by chemical weapons or even nukes; in the bird flu discussion we imagine a human pandemic that kills millions in Britain and America. That is because the engine of these panics is not the thing itself, not bird flu or terrorism or whatever the next focus might me, but rather a propensity to panic within Western societies, a deep-rooted cultural outlook that says humanity is both vulnerable and destructive, both at risk and a risk.

In 2005, the panic may ostensibly have been in response to a strain of animal disease, but it reflected powerful anti-humanist strains within Western politics today. In Suffolk, we can see the fizzling out of fear in the face of everyday pragmatism. The cultural representation of bird flu as a threat to mankind has been superseded by a fairly sensible view of it as a pesky animal disease to be treated and hopefully halted. Upon its arrival, the disease that so exercised the Western imagination in 2005 seems to have been brought under control by the medical, agricultural and political authorities. But the underlying fearful outlook that drove the bird flu panic of 2005 still exists. What issue will it migrate to next?

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Bird flu

(1) Mutant flu will ‘kill 50 million’, Sun, October 2005

(2) Flu farm vet ‘can’t breathe’, Sun, 7 February 2007

(3) A virulent strain of self-loathing taking hold, The Times, 6 February 2007

(7) See A tale of two scares, by Brendan O’Neill

(8) See A tale of two scares, by Brendan O’Neill

(9) The precautionary principle, Wiki

(10) See A tale of two scares, by Brendan O’Neill

(11) See A tale of two scares, by Brendan O’Neill

(12) World slow to face bird flu threat, BBC News, 25 August 2005

(13) Mike Davis on The Monster at our Door, TomDispatch, 16 August 2005

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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