Swine flu and the dramatisation of disease

Recent events show that, while society has the scientific know-how to cope with outbreaks of flu, it still sees disease as a harbinger of apocalypse.

Frank Furedi

Frank Furedi

Topics World

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The explosion of global fear about the outbreak of a deathly flu virus in Mexico is more a response to the dramatisation of influenza than to the actual threat it poses.

There is nothing unusual about the outbreak of flu. Every year, thousands of people die from the flu, and, in normal conditions, society has learned to cope with the flu threat. From time to time, an outbreak of flu turns into a global pandemic, leading to a catastrophic loss of life. However, there is no evidence that the so-called swine flu, which has so far claimed a relatively small number of lives, will turn into a pandemic. Rather, what we are faced with is a health crisis that has been transformed into a moral drama.

Although swine flu is a relatively common hazard of pig-farming, it is worth noting that, so far, health inspectors have not found infected pigs anywhere in Mexico. So why call it ‘swine flu’? The main reason is that the last strain of flu that genetically resembled this one was found among swine. But it does not have to be called ‘swine flu’. The Israeli deputy health minister, Yakov Litzman, says his country will refuse to call the disease by that name because religious Jews do not eat pork. ‘We will call it Mexico flu’, he said. What Litzman’s comments demonstrate is that the name, and image, we give to a disease is principally influenced by culture rather than science.

History shows that how people respond to a crisis determines the impact and the meaning of that crisis. People do not simply ‘suffer a disaster’. They engage with the terrible or threatening event, sometimes adapting to it and sometimes drawing lessons and meaning from it; at other times they can be disoriented and confused by a crisis, but they often learn to reorganise their lives around it, sometimes in a creative way.

In principle, we have all the resources and technical ingredients we need to deal with swine flu. Compared with previous eras, we have a relatively effective warning and tracking system that allows the authorities to take the necessary precautions. Although at present there is no vaccine available to prevent this strain of flu, there are anti-flu drugs that have been shown to work once the virus has been contracted. However, although society has the science and technology to cope with this latest outbreak of flu, its cultural and moral coping mechanisms appear feeble and exposed.

When, on 27 April 2009, the World Health Organisation’s emergency committee raised the pandemic threat level for swine flu from level three to level four (out of a possible six), it was acting on a script that was cobbled together in the early years of the twenty-first century. Since the turn of the new millennium, the term ‘pandemic’ has become normalised and is increasingly used to frame global anxieties and fears. ‘Health alerts’ have been transformed into rituals, through which fear entrepreneurs remind us, in a quasi-religious fashion, that human extinction is a very real possibility. Terms like ‘epidemic’ and ‘pandemic’ appear with increasing frequency in newspapers, and are now used in everyday conversation, too.

This tendency to inflate the dangers that we face leads to a situation where fearmongers now speculate about hundreds of thousands, millions or even billions of casualties occurring as a result of some crisis or disaster. Even highly prestigious journals and media outlets seem incapable of resisting the temptation to spread alarmist high-casualty scenarios. On 5 February 2004, an editorial in the New Scientist warned that a bird flu outbreak, in which the virus was transmitted between people, could kill 1.5billion people. The dramatisation of bird flu really took off with the WHO announcement in December 2004, which exhorted all nations to overhaul their pandemic strategies.

As one study of the campaign of fear around pandemics noted: ‘The heightening of pandemic awareness was achieved through the strategic use of what one can call “scare quotes” in leading scientific journals and press releases, scare statistics, such as the 1968 Hong Kong pandemic which killed 30,000 Britons and over one million people worldwide, [and] scare historical references, such as the flu pandemics of 1918 and 1997.’ (1) In this important study, titled ‘Avian Flu: The Creation of Expectations in the Interplay Between Science and the Media’, the authors drew attention to the strategy of linking current outbreaks of the flu to historic catastrophes, which in turn fostered a climate of panic. In relation to the recent panic about the threat of avian flu, they noted that ‘the shift of emphasis to past pandemics contributes to the rhetoric of fear by imbuing the as-yet minor flu outbreak with historical significance, which obscures the fact that the current strain of avian flu has, as yet, killed only a relatively small number of people who had direct contact with poultry’ (2).

Increasingly, public health officials sound as if they are rehearsing their roles for a disaster movie. They frequently argue that, since we had deathly flu pandemics in the past, it is inevitable that we will face another one very soon. ‘Major pandemics sweep the world every century, and it is inevitable that at least one will occur in the future’, said Professor Maria Zambon, a virologist and head of Britain’s Health Protection Agency’s influenza laboratory. For good measure, she added that ‘we can never be completely prepared for what nature will do: nature is the ultimate bioterrorist’ (3). The fatalistic view of an inevitable global flu catastrophe is made more ominous still by linking it with our anxieties about terrorism. Leading British scientist Hugh Pennington also made this link, when he stated in 2005 that avian flu ‘is the biggest threat to the human race’ and it ‘far outweighs bioterrorism; this is natural terrorism’ (4).

Inevitably, the dramatisation of the flu has spawned various apocalyptic stories about how viruses can be ‘weaponised’ and used to threaten human survival. Such stories warn the public that terrorists might try to infect our nations with bird flu. Consider the Institute of Public Policy Research’s Commission of National Security for the Twenty-First Century: one of its reports speculated that the threat from pandemic diseases such as SARS and avian flu is growing all the time, and because of inadequate preparation ‘a serious disease outbreak or bio-terrorism incident in the next 18 months could tip the global economy from serious recession into global depression’. In line with Hollywood fantasy plotlines, the report invited us to imagine the possibility of a terrorist purchasing ‘genes for use in the engineering of an existing and dangerous pathogen into a more virulent strain’ (5).

Alongside fears about the ‘weaponisation’ of viruses, the internet is awash with rumours about the conspiracy responsible for the current outbreak of swine flu. ‘I find it odd that this recent outbreak of swine flu first appeared in Mexico about the time President Obama was visiting there’, writes one blogger, before asking: ‘Does anyone else find that suspicious?’ And far too many people are replying: ‘Yes.’ Far-right conspiracy theorists describe swine flu as the ‘latest bioterrorism attack by the New World Order’. Left-wing conspiratorial-minded crusaders, meanwhile, blame the Republicans in US Congress for cutting ‘pandemic preparedness’ funds out of Obama’s economic stimulus package. Environmental campaigners point the finger of blame at the big corporations that factory-farm pigs. Everyone seems to have their own version of a Hollywood disaster film, through which they can make sense of the outbreak of flu.

It seems the swine flu outbreak has infected our imaginations, giving shape and tangibility to our anxieties about everyday life. We should give the pigs a rest, and get on with living.

Frank Furedi is author of Culture of Fear (buy this book from Amazon(UK)) and Invitation To Terror: The Expanding Empire of The Unknown (buy this book from Amazon(UK)), both published by Continuum Press. Visit Furedi’s website here.

Previously on spiked

Brendan O’Neill contrasted the UK reaction to bird flu when it was a distant phenomenon in Asia to the response when it arrived in the UK. Stuart Derbyshire called for historical perspective when comparing the 1918 flu epidemic to the discovery of a dead swan in Fife. Mick Hume criticised bird flu scaremongering. Dr Michael Fitzpatrick argued that the fear of flu pandemics is definitely bad for us. Or read more at spiked issue Bird flu and pandemic fears.

(1) Nerlich, B. and Halliday, C. (2007) ‘Avian Flu: the creation of expectations in the interplay between science and the media’, Sociology of Health and Illness, vol.29, no.1, p.54.

(2) Nerlich, B. and Halliday, C. (2007) ‘Avian Flu: the creation of expectations in the interplay between science and the media’, Sociology of Health and Illness, vol.29, no.1, p.561

(3) Cited in What a way to go, Guardian, 14 April 2005.

(4) Daily Express, 4 March 2005

(5) Commission on National Security in the 21st Century, IPPR (accessed 1 December 2008)

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

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