Friday, April 07, 2006

Panic! Panic!

*** Warning! This could be construed as a Rant! ***

You might be forgiven for thinking that the bodies were already piling up in the streets.

A dead mute swan has tested positive for the flu virus H5N1 and suddenly the media is on high alert. I've not seen the papers today, only the online version of the Scotsman, but if the radio news was anything to go by, we're building up to a good old national hysteria. Endless ranks of experts, concerned politicians and well-intentioned but dim members of the public have been interviewed, hours of television and radio have been aired, miles of column inches have been printed. We're all dead already, we just don't know it.

As it happens, I remember the last big animal disease scare in the UK very well. I was seconded to go and work in the Disease Control Centre in Llanishen on the outskirts of Cardiff when Foot and Mouth disease hit the UK in 2001. I spent many months observing as the initial disarray was slowly turned into a cohesive strategy that finally got the outbreak under control and eliminated the disease. Foot and Mouth came out of the blue, more than thirty years since the previous outbreaks. There were contingency plans in place, written in the early seventies and perhaps dusted off in the eighties and nineties during Ministry of Agriculture office moves, but in the main, no-one had a clue what they were meant to do to stop the spread of the disease.

The media, of course, whipped the whole story up into a frenzy. The general public learnt a great deal about how their meat and milk was produced that they hadn't known before, and many of them decided they didn't like it very much (but carried on with their burgers and shakes anyway.) There were things which needed the well placed boot of journalistic investigation and news coverage to sort out - in Northumberland, for instance, the people running the disease control plan refused to enlist the help of local huntsmen in the cull of infected animals - even though huntsmen are licensed and skilled slaughterers and also well-known and respected in their rural communities - because it was considered politically incorrect to acknowledge that hunting could in any way be useful at all. It wasn't until the army was put in control of the area that things started to improve, and the first thing the general did was call in the huntsmen.

There was also the small matter of the Prime Minister calling a general election when half of the country was under government movement restrictions, which sounds a little dictatorial to me. Sure Labour would have won anyway - the Tories were still in total disarray and fighting amongst themselves like spoiled children back then - but it was a monstrously cynical move, and some of the press rightly castigated The Smiler* for it.

But Bird Flu is different (and you thought I'd forgotten what this post was all about.) It has the potential to wipe out hundreds of millions of people, but at the moment that is very unlikely. Across the whole of the world to date it has killed about a hundred, all of whom live and work in close contact with poultry. Concerned scientists have been tracking it for several years now, and our government has been quietly putting contingency plans into place for the time when it finally reaches these shores. They knew it was just a matter of time before those plans had to be enacted.

The media, on the other hand, has acted like all its Christmases have come at once. For the past year or more we've been bombarded with stories about the coming apocalypse; how it will make the great Spanish Flu epidemic seem like a mild bout of the sniffles; how we'll all drown in our own lungs; how the health services won't be able to cope; how the drugs manufacturers are holding back supplies of drugs in a sinister world-government sponsored plot to wipe out the third world**.

And now that the bug has finally arrived, all the stops have been pulled out. I heard one resident of Cellardyke ask when 'they' were going to come and clean up the beach where the dead swan had been found. He was concerned that children playing down there might get infected. Now, apart from the fact that the virus doesn't survive well once it's no longer in a living creature, and that tides will quickly sweep away any infected swan poop, it's far more likely that children playing unattended on a beach in the East Neuk of Fife will drown than catch any nasty bugs. But instead of pointing this out to the concerned local, the question was then used to berate the disease control specialists, concerned politicians and other important folk for their lack of activity.

Lack of activity? As far as I can tell, the dead bird was picked up within twelve hours of it being reported. It did take a while for the tests to confirm that it had died of flu, mainly because of the advanced stage of decomposition it was in, but even before it was clear that it was H5N1 and not some lesser H5 strain, the protection and surveillance zones had been set up. Now the surveillance area has been increased to cover most of the east coast of Scotland, and rangers are monitoring the wild bird populations closely for any signs of illness. I don't really see what more could be done at this stage, short of a mass cull of anything with feathers approaching the country. Let's station toffs with shotguns and hipflasks full of whisky on every bluff and clifftop. Kill all the feathery plague-spreaders I say! Death to them all, with their beady eyes and stupid beaks!

No, the early days of Foot and Mouth were a complete balls up. We were caught with our pants down, so to speak. But so far Avian Flu has run exactly as the experts said it should, and the action plan has been implemented with un-governmental speed and competence.

But the media loves a scare story, and we can't get enough of them. We watch the news and buy the papers, after all. We love the idea that something terrible might be coming, and even better that we might be able to blame someone else for it. Maybe it's because our lives are too dull and predictable. We yearn for danger, excitement, the thrill of impending catastrophe.

Just as long as it's only on the pages of the tabloids.

* with apologies to Warren Ellis.
** OK, so I made that last one up. Or did I?


Blogger Sandra Ruttan said...

Rant on James.

If there isn't enough real bad shit happening, then the media has to blow stuff way out of proportion. Next it'll be travel warnings and crap.

I remember reading about SARS in Toronto and Ian Rankin and Val McDermid joking about the hard-boiled US writers that cancelled going there. They didn't. I mean, I would've cancelled because it's Taranna, but they were real pros and didn't let a bit of media hype get in the way.

April 07, 2006 9:11 pm  
Blogger M. G. Tarquini said...

I try to keep optimistic about these things, James. If I go to UK and an infected bird poops on me, then I'll be thankful for going quickly rather than suffering months, possibly years with Mad Cow Disease.

April 11, 2006 5:52 pm  
Blogger JamesO said...

Ooh, mad cow disease. Now there's a rant I can really get my teeth into. And I can insult the French, too. Thanks M.G.

April 12, 2006 8:29 am  

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