Nothing To Fear But Fear Itself

picture.jpgWe’ve had the Spanish flu (1918-19), the Asian flu (1957) and the Hong Kong flu (1968-69). More recently we’ve had SARS, bird flu and most recently we’ve had (or probably haven’t) swine flu. There is also seasonal flu that appears every winter and kills about 250,000 people annually.

The phrase “community of anxiety” was coined in 2004 by the writer Ian McEwan in a novel called Saturday about the events surrounding 9/11. A similar idea is that of information pandemics. The idea here is that fear and anxiety are spreading throughout the world, fuelled primarily by digital communications (i.e. interconnectivity) and low-cost travel.Fear can start with a single email, spread to a blog and end up on Twitter. The result is global panic on a scale hitherto unseen and outbreaks can be difficult to contain because drugs don’t generally work.

In early May the World Health Organization talked about the need to stockpile food and water due to the swine flu outbreak and raised the threat level to 5 out of a possible 6. Meanwhile, airports were installing thermal scanners and newspapers were revelling in the story as it grew every more scary and spectacular. The whole world seemed to be running for cover wearing a variety of (mostly useless) facemasks. Fear was spreading fast, fed by a mixture of confusion and impotence.

Of course the threat is real enough. The 1918 outbreak killed somewhere between 20-50 million people in less than 18-months while the Black Death in the 14th Century wiped out 1/3 of the European population in just two years. Even the Asia and Hong Kong pandemics killed about 1-2 million people apiece. But we are confusing what’s possible with what’s probable and the reason that we are doing this is that there is a collective feeling — a mood if you like – that something big and nasty is coming our way. This is partly because of a string of events, ranging from 9/11 and climate change to the economic collapse have left us feeling unsure about what’s next. It is possible that a pandemic will eventually emerge. It will probably start in an over-crowed Asian city and travel economy class on a jet to the US and Europe. We might be able to intercept it or we might not. The science surrounding such things is uncertain.

Interestingly though, there also appears to be a sense that we deserve things like this to happen to us in some way. We are collectively guilty (because we borrowed too much money or damaged the planet with our selfish, materialist ways, perhaps) and we need to be punished. There is also a warped sense of curiosity at play. What would the world look like after a genuine pandemic?

Another example of the fear factor was the jet that flew low over New York in early May. People automatically assumed another terrorist attack was taking place and panic whipped around Manhattan like wildfire.
It turned out to be someone talking some photographs but by then it was too late. And this, perhaps, is the point. Information now flows around the world too fast and there is not enough time to properly react or to separate fact from opinion, anecdote from analysis or sensation from science. It is now also next to impossible to figure out what to believe. There is too much information and much of it is unreliable. Thanks to Web 2.0 the old hierarchy of knowledge, where source related to trustworthiness and reliability, has broken down. We just don’t now whom or what to believe.

Furthermore, the people that we used to trust (scientists, politicians, religious figures and so on) are now so widely distrusted that we ignore them or take anything they say with a large pinch of salt. So far swine flu is killing about 0.1% of those that it infects. The mortality rate for the 1918-19 varieties was 2.5-5.0%. So far very few people have actually died. This could still change but I doubt it. Nevertheless, the sense of doom and gloom and impending apocalypse remains.

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