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Losing Perspective

Swine Flu Panic

by BINOY KAMPMARK

"We should give the pigs a rest, and get on with living."

– Frank Füredi, ‘Swine Flu and the Dramatisation of Disease,’ Spiked, April 28, 2009

The well are panicking in droves, with the potential to swamp the world’s health systems with complaints about fictional conditions.  As more cases of swine flu are found, there is every indication that the lid on panic is slowly lifting.  The tension between reconciling genuine cases with those of needless worriers is something any health system must consider.   One pandemic risks succeeding another in what has been termed the ‘panic pandemic’.  The UK Health Secretary, Andy Burnham, is worried about Britain’s citizens in particular.  ‘It is very important for everybody to keep a sense of perspective’ (The Observer, 26 Jul).  A sharp rise in GP consultations, notably amongst the 14 and under age group, have been noted.

One aspect of this was pointed out by Professor Terence Stephenson, president of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health.  ‘There are 11 million children in England and 256 of them are in hospital [with swine flu].’  Previously healthy children who have been infected have not died.  Deaths have happened, but none of them have fallen into that particular category.

Experts have had to issue wise counsel, suggesting that the vast majority of flu cases will simply require the person staying home for treatment and care.  Many students at school and universities will find much encouragement from the various advisory notes that have been distributed.  Teaching will be merrily subverted, pedagogues can get on with some research, and pupils will simply be required to lie low.  Antivirals have been made readily available, and a help line to console and advise potential sufferers is at least easing the burden on surgeries.  But the risk of a bottleneck in the system is ever present.

The problem is very much related to the fact that we live in a fearful society, susceptible to a panic drive the moment the button is triggered.  A whole host of factors might trigger it.  The sociologist Frank Füredi, and the social theorist Zygmunt Bauman have poured over the various events that have led to this exhausting mindset of terror.  Füredi claims that the very idea of a global pandemic has been dramatised.  The basis of the flu as an ordinary condition that affects and kills regularly has been lost, invested instead with eschatological meaning.  Burnham notes that 8000 people have perished to flu in Britain on an annual basis in the last twelve years.  The world was facing ‘a health crisis that has been transformed into a moral drama’ (Spiked, 28 April).

Bauman would be thinking that this was simply another symptom of the ‘liquid’ society unhinged from its stable, modernist structures.  Panic is the classic outcome of a society that can no longer formulate a solution to a crisis in any coherent manner.  We are, to but it bluntly, overstimulated, overexcited beings, the symptom of what the sociologist Georg Simmel described as berührungsangst, or a certain ‘fear of contact’.  To this can be added the oversupply of information, with too many ‘solutions’ to problems that confuse rather than clarify.  The response to the swine flu does, in some ways, reflect this modern dilemma.  The easiest response for many citizens is a quick trip to the local GP, however sensible the course of action might be.

While the containment of the panic has gone fairly well in many countries, the story is far from uniform.  Chinese authorities are still responding to flu cases with that military intensity they did to SARS.  The internet buzzes with conspiracies of infection, a planned and intended outcome hatched by various groups to weaken society.  The implied outcome to this drama, of course, is militarisation, reducing the problem to security terms that require extreme measures.  All in all, governments would do well to simply encourage their subjects to stay put when ill, imagined or otherwise, rather than embark on worrisome trips to their local, already overworked doctor.

BINOY KAMPMARK was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge.  He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.  Email: bkampmark@gmail.com