The fearmongers preying on pregnant women

It was only a matter of time before the swine-flu scare lobby turned its attention to those who are seen as an easy target for fear: mums-to-be.

Frank Furedi

Frank Furedi

Topics Politics

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Over the past month, I have been asked many times to give my opinion on the official response to the outbreak of the swine flu epidemic.

It is fairly easy to offer a balanced assessment of the authorities’ various responses. For example, it is clear that Margaret Chan, head of the World Health Organisation (WHO), was more than overreacting when, after raising the pandemic alert from level four to level five, she warned that ‘all of humanity is under threat’. Her alarmist statement was really a moral comment on humanity’s powerlessness when confronted with the forces of nature. It is always a pleasure to contrast such a high-level communication of moral disorientation with the refreshingly balanced views on swine flu provided by, for example, Fergus Walsh of the BBC.

However, sorting the alarmist statements from the sensible ones does not provide an adequate assessment of the official response to swine flu. The way in which the threat of swine flu has been framed has been dominated by powerful cultural influences, which all too readily turn a health problem into an existential crisis. Despite the fact that humanity enjoys levels of safety that are historically unprecedented, and is far more prepared to deal with a pandemic than in previous times, popular culture has transformed the flu into an apocalyptic threat.

Consequently, the swine flu epidemic has been turned into a moral story about human life itself. So it is not surprising that Britain’s National Childbirth Trust (NCT) took it upon itself to advise women to delay pregnancy until swine flu subsides. The message from the UK Department of Health was a little more ‘subtle’. ‘We advise everybody to plan their pregnancy carefully – we are not advising women not to conceive’, said a DoH statement. Since it might be difficult for everyday people to grasp the philosophical distinction between a call to avoid getting pregnant and advice about ‘planning your pregnancy carefully’, it is likely that mothers-to-be will feel unnecessarily anxious.

It was inevitable that, sooner or later, pregnancy would become the target of swine-flu scaremongering. By its very nature, pregnancy comes with a variety of risks – and that now includes the risk of complications from swine flu. In recent decades these very natural risks have been redefined as unnatural hazards. Now, pregnancy comes with a permanent health warning. Moral entrepreneurs continually prey on pregnant women and advise them to, amongst other things, avoid smoking, drinking alcohol or eating dangerous food. The suggestion now that women should delay pregnancy marks a new low, yet it is also merely an extension of the moral policing of women’s reproductive behaviour.

Of course, in the end the government tried to alleviate the damaging consequences of the conflicting messages to mothers-to-be. But confused messages are the inexorable consequence of the current regime of the culture of fear. Although it is still possible to come across sensible advice and informative public-health statements, such messages always tend to be overshadowed by worst-case thinking. What sticks in people’s minds is the UK chief medical officer Liam Donaldson’s warning that there might be 65,000 deaths from swine flu in Britain. With a catastrophe threatening to destroy the nation, is it any surprise confusion and conflicting advice become more and more widespread?

The principal problem with officialdom’s response to swine flu is that it is driven by the belief that this is a security problem rather than a health problem. Once health risks become converted into the moral language of security and existence they acquire an intensely menacing and malevolent character. Consequently, the risks associated with a flu epidemic cease to be constrained by objective epidemiological thinking.

Ever since an editorial for the New Scientist in February 2004 warned that a bird flu outbreak in which the virus was transmitted between people could kill 1.5billion people, it has become quite normal to confuse worst-case flu scenarios with normal flu outbreaks. In such circumstances, even attempts to reassure the public are undermined by officials’ own worst-case mindset. So UK home secretary Alan Johnson told us that the NCT’s advice on conception was an ‘overreaction’ – but then undid his clarification by casually informing us that, by the way, the swine flu crisis was a bigger threat to Britain than terrorism.

Johnson said yesterday that ‘we have been preparing for this for a long time’, adding that ‘it came actually above terrorism as a threat to this country, so we had the whole Cobra machinery and inter-agency working [on it]’. Some might see this as evidence of effective contingency planning in government circles. However, historians in the future will most likely regard it as an illustration of the early twenty-first century’s dramatisation of security. Part of this drama involves continually expanding the narrative of terror to a growing range of potential threats; now, the moral indictment of terrorism provides the vocabulary for representing flu as a mortal threat to the nation.

Today, the various individuals and institutions that make up the fear market forcefully demonise flu. For example, a promo ad for a course on ‘Pandemics and Bioterrorism’ at the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology claims that ‘swine flu is only the most recent of the challenges posed by threats of bioterrorism and global pandemics’. The casual manner in which the threat of bioterrorism is introduced into the discussion of swine flu, in a circular linked to one of the most prestigious scientific institutions in the world, provides disturbing evidence that fearmongering has become a respectable pursuit today.

Similar arguments were put forward by the UK Institute of Public Policy Research’s Commission on National Security in 2008. A document published by the IPPR 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 current Hollywood fantasy plots, 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’ (1).

The most effective alternative to the current obsession with worst-case thinking is to affirm human life. Health professionals and officials should stick to providing scientifically grounded information and avoid the temptation to moralise and speculate in a dramatic fashion. People are quite capable of making sensible judgment calls about the risks they face. It is natural to feel anxious about being pregnant, as it is natural to be anxious about our children’s health – but it is no less natural to affirm our humanity by making love, getting pregnant and having children. In part, life gains meaning through reflecting upon and learning from our engagement with uncertainty. Throughout our lives, we convert uncertainties into insights about how to cope, how to live, and what makes us human. Ignore the scaremongers and carry on living.

Frank Furedi’s latest book, Invitation To Terror: The Expanding Empire of The Unknown, is published by Continuum Press. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).) Visit Furedi’s website here.

(1) The IPPR report is available here.

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Topics Politics


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