I may be wrong but . . . . . . the present alarm at the possibility of a global swine flu pandemic – or how serious it all is – demonstrates yet again the gulf between gullible panic merchants and pig-headed deniers. And the crucial part played by the media.
The spectrum of reaction to news of the new “deadly” virus (well, it has killed a few victims to date) that may be coming to your neighbourhood any day soon, spans the usual range of attitudes. At one end we have those fearing the end of civilisation as we know it, who will grab at any lifeline available and preach doom to anyone who will listen; at the other end the critics, mockers and deniers claiming that swine flu is as much a threat to mankind as was – haha, remember these fiascos? – Y2K, ozone, Sars, bird flu and (trendily) climate change.
Most intelligent people acknowledge the mainly self-serving role of the conventional media in promoting anxiety, even as they appear to soothe by telling us how to reduce our chances of catching it or dying from it. The editors believe that, after scaring us with tales of the “killer virus”, we’ll all be so grateful for the feature articles on how to take precautions and stock up ‘just in case’. Just like they did when bird flu threatened.
Nothing much anyone outside the media can do about this – it’s an attitude that’s now embedded in the DNA of modern media. Top priority jobs for reporters: Look for the local angle (passengers of NZ1 that ended up in our town), camp outside a possible sufferer’s home hoping for an interview with anyone involved, ask “How do you feel?”, etc.
Also of educational value is following the letters pages of newspapers. Letters on issues such as this pandemic, often chosen for their provocative value, usually show the two extremes – panic and denial. One I read the other day in The Press scorned and mocked the hand-wringers, saying swine flu is just the trendy pandemic of the day – taking over from bird flu, Sars, Y2K etc etc. And climate change. The writer was a well-established local climate change denier: no surprise there.
I enjoyed much of the flavour of the letter. A bit of gentle mocking does no harm at all in this often over-serious world – as long as the quoted examples are presented in at least a reasonable, open-minded perspective. And here I sometimes have a problem.
These examples of Y2K, ozone, climate change and health pandemics fall into two groups: crises which had outcomes very hard, dare I say almost impossible, for any expert to predict, let alone us laypeople; and crises which had fairly clear possible outcomes which could be mitigated by well-analysed actions.
The various health scares are clearly in the “unpredictable” corner. Take swine flu: it does exist, is pandemic and can have tragic effects, but all of the health experts I’ve read and heard are clear that its future course, spread, severity and outcomes is very unpredictable. The media, of course, hate this, and you hear over and over otherwise professional interviewers trying to brush aside these uncertainties and pressing experts for definitive statements that would fit easily in a news item sound bite.
In the other corner I place Y2K and the ozone layer problem. These were not unfounded scares. (I was involved in the computer industry over the 10 years before Y2K and know that many of the predicted problems did exist, with the potential to cause problems of varying impact.) In the end, they did not cause tragic problems because various individuals and governing authorities who were in a position to take action actually did!
The damage to the ozone layer was seen in time, and regulations and community attitudes were brought to play to eliminate or severely reduce the main cause of ozone depletion, namely the stuff used in modern refrigerators and aerosols. Fortunately this was done early enough that now we are at least seeing the stabilisation of the ozone layer (when the problem would otherwise have severely worsened). And for that I would rather thank and endorse the people who saw the problem and initiated action. I would pour scorn on the critics who would rather use the stabilisation of the ozone problem as an example of the wisdom of doing nothing because it’s only the “scare of the day”.
And if the host of technical people around the world had said Y2K didn’t deserve attention because it was just a media-driven beat-up, then I’m sure there would have been many significant tragedies (meaning, loss of life in some cases) and hosts of inconvenient problems for months into 2000. Not end-of-civilisation stuff, just things that would have made city life difficult for many people for some time.
Y2K passed without huge technological and societal problem precisely because the people prepared to take it seriously did not listen to the mockers. Unfairly, they are now the target for cheap shots every time a new scare is beat up.
I may be wrong, but my gut feeling (and extensive reading) tells me that climate change falls into the same category as ozone and Y2K problems. Those who scorn climate change science as just a conspiratorial beat-up are inhibiting those who are trying to take sensible long-term action to mitigate.
By all means, let the media know that overhyping any particular unpredictable global problem can do more harm than good. But don’t unfairly mock those who, seeing a real problem evolving and some solutions available, actually do something useful about it. That includes health professionals trying to make sense of the unknown.