By Ian R. Thorpe
The world seems to get more insane every day. Mainstream media in developed nations have in the past few days become frantic in their efforts to spread Fear and Panic. Why? Because of an outbreak of a new variant influenza virus that has so far infected a few thousand people and killed, up to now, around 150.
Since when did people dying become so unacceptable? People die all the time. Life’s a bitch. Swine ’flu is still a long way from being a pandemic — it is not even a national epidemic in Mexico yet. “But millions could die,” protest the peddlers of Fear and Panic. Note the “could,” and the lack of “will.” The only thing that is epidemic at the moment is hyperbole.
So far, just over 2,000 cases have been confirmed in Mexico and 150 people have died. A handful of cases have been confirmed outside Mexico and, with the very unfortunate exception of a young child in Texas, all are recovering or responding to treatment. To put the figures in perspective, with 2,000 cases in a nation of approximately 110 million people, at present the chances of being infected are one in 50,000. Is that cause to panic?
Scientists and the politicians who pay them are talking up the threat, so ought we to listen to them? It is as wise to be as skeptical of scientists as we are of politicians. As mentioned before on a different topic and probably in a comment thread, Tony Blair–the man on whose political persona Barack Obama’s image seems to be closely modeled–told an aide on September 11, 2001 that it was a “good day to bury bad news.” Indeed, Obama’s policy base owes much to the ideals of the UK Labour Party (even down to authoritarian tendencies). In fact, many ideas being tried for the first time in America have failed again and again under Labour administrations in Britain. Even Karl Marx understood if every individual is given an equal share of the nation’s wealth, within a year some would be millionaires and others impoverished. Unfortunately, the techniques use to sell dodgy policies have now crossed the Atlantic.
With Al Qaeda more or less behaving themselves, where does a government faced with the prospect of having to announce more terrible economic data or the collapse of a major car maker find enough bad news under which to bury something that big? Blair’s spinmeister Alistair Campbell had the answer to that too — presentation is all.
Bring up a story enough to make people worry that their lives are threatened and they will not be listening to bad economic data or fretting about job losses. That may seem over the top, but consider what became of other threatened epi and pandemics. In the 1980s, medical science and political spin were working together to whip up hysteria about AIDS. “If you had five sexual partners in a year you are in a high risk category” said the public information campaign, and people believed it. Letters were sent to agony aunts and television doctors by people worried that their (heterosexual) partners may have been promiscuous and thus infected them. In fact, the case was that AIDS showed no sign of mutating into a contagious virus, but rather was passed on in very specific ways. People who were not drug users and restricted themselves to “normal” activity, even with many partners, had an infinitesimal level of risk and even that mainly came from receiving infected blood products during medical procedures. (Of course, I know it is not politically correct to refer to “normal” sexual activity, but we all know what it means here.)
AIDS never became the threatened pandemic. Recently, some medical researchers have spoken out, describing how they were pressured into disguising the results of their research to give the impression everybody was at risk from AIDS rather than specific groups. Africa, where certain abnormal sexual practices and social mores are rife, is the exception.
In Britain, in the mid 1990s, we had the BSE (Bovine Spongiform Encephalitis) scare. “Mad Cow Disease,” as it was known, would according to scientists kill millions of Britons in a particularly repulsive way as their brains turned to mush. At the height of the scare from 1995 to 1997, medical experts with higher degrees from respectable universities forecast catastrophe. The scare stories which painted a scenario of 10 million Britons dying slowly, losing their mental faculties, control of their limbs and finally body functions because they had eaten infected meat frightened the government into ordering the slaughter of millions of cattle that may or may not have been infected. £5 billion was spent on compensating farmers for loss of their herds.
(Now, we see that similar culling procedures are taking place in Egypt. This time, it’s swine flu, and it’s the pigs’ turn to be slaughters. Similarly, farmers are furious.)
BSE, by the way, is not infectious, and while nobody ever identified with any certainty the cause, it is thought to be the result of clusters of rogue proteins called prions forming in brain tissue. The disease seemed to abate in cattle once the practice of fattening them on feeds made from cattle abattoir waste was made illegal. Cannibalism, it seems, is never a good idea.
As for the human form of the disease, the link with infected meat was never conclusively proved and, though certain practices in the food processing industry are now banned, cases are still occasionally reported in humans. Only a few hundred people died though, even at the height of the scare.
While the BSE scare was in full swing, a scientific paper claiming sheep had been infected by being grazed on pastures shared with cattle reached the public domain. There was no evidence to suggest this was the case and a well know disease of sheep, scrapie, produces similar symptoms to those suffered by cattle with Mad Cow Disease. The scientist responsible for the paper commented “the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” Compare that of course to the reaction of the science community when lay people question the case for climate change, the safety of multiple vaccines, or the risks of genetically modified foods. Always, with the volume turned up to eleven, the combined responses yell, “there is no scientific evidence to support your doubts, you are being led by superstition and media hysteria.”
In 2003, an outbreak of a “new disease,” SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) was predicted to have “a 25 percent chance of killing tens of millions of people.” The papers, aware that sensation sells, dubbed it “a plague worse than AIDS.” Not one single person in Britain died.
Note how these warnings are always made in very indefinite terms. Swine Flu could kill, SARS has a 25% chance. “Possibly” and “potentially” occur often, too.
That should provide some perspective on the Swine Flu scare. How worried should you be? Take care, but don’t panic. The main killers in any epidemic are poverty and ignorance combined with Fear and Panic. To understand why government and medical agencies promote hysteria, ask yourself the question Marcus Tullius Cicero asked the Roman Senate around 2000 years ago: Cui bono? Who benefits? Who stands to gain?
Governments whose agenda includes the suppression of rights and freedoms always benefit from an outbreak of Fear and Panic. The Labour government in power in Britain since 1997 have used scaremongering many times to divert public attention from bad news and avoid scrutiny. Tony Blair’s famous 45-minute claim in which he tried to convince the nation Saddam Hussein could launch a strike against British targets with 45 minutes’ notice was an example famous because of its failure and the resulting destruction of Blair’s credibility. George W. Bush’s actions in the wake of 9/11 and his later claims regarding weapons of mass destruction exploited the same human instincts. Saddam may have posed some small threat in 1991 but in 2001 was a spent force. He could have been taken out of the equation with far more subtlety.
Blair and Bush, no matter what we might think of them now, were astute enough politicians to get themselves elected in the first place — so why did they turn to such tactics? Here’s a theory: After the dotcom bubble burst in 2000, it was clear the global capitalists had screwed up by trading in things that did not exist, and the world was sliding into recession. The Obama administration, in a display of their naivete, talks of Roosevelt’s New Deal ending the 1930s slump but, in fact, it was World War II and the preparations for it that brought the world’s big economies out of depression. Most economists knew that but dared not admit it publicly. A crisis was needed in both 1939 and 2001 to get public opinion behind the unpleasant realities facing the world. Right now, we are in a terrible situation throughout the developed world and, with two shooting wars and a war on terror already in progress, that avenue is closed. So where do beleaguered governments look for excuses to spend insane amounts of money and impose greater controls on the public? A plague maybe?
Cui bono? The government.
There is also the question of mass medication programmes. In the UK and to a lesser extent in the US there is a long running argument about the safety of MMR vaccine. Once again, the proponents of mass vaccination cite “no scientific evidence” of the alleged link (in a very small number of cases it must be said) to the onset of autism. The observations of parents are dismissed as “anecdotal” and therefore invalid. The heat seemed to have gone out of the debate, but take up of MMR fell below 70 percent, and this was not enough for Big Pharma. They lobbied the government for compulsion and stirred up a totally hypothetical threat of a measles epidemic, citing measles as a killer disease.
Cui bono? The Pharmaceutical Companies.
The MMR argument could easily have been killed. The single measles vaccine is very effective and no controversy at all attaches to it. Government, however, refuses to give parents a choice and has imposed sanctions on private clinics that offer three single vaccines to parents willing to pay. As one would expect, parental resistance to MMR is hardening.
Over the past few years, government’s pressure on the public to accept mass ’flu vaccination programmes has been met with a stonewall of indifference from the people. Big Pharma are not getting a good enough return for their investment. Could that have anything to do with the Swine Flu scare?
Now we are seeing a pattern emerge in the use of Fear and Panic. In order to push an unpopular policy, create a scare story. People wondering how concerned they should be about Swine Flu can take heart: the human influenza virus–of which Swine Flu is a variant–is an unpleasant illness but not often a killer unless there is a precondition to complicate it. Those most at risk are the very young, the very old, and people with chronic illnesses. In Mexico and other third world countries poverty, ignorance, poor communications, poor nutrition and lack of clean drinking water will be enough to raise the death toll. In the United States and Britain, we have no excuse for being poorly nourished or for lacking information. Take good care of the children and the people most vulnerable to infection and the rest of us have little to worry about unless we are very unlucky and have an extreme reaction. To put it in perspective again, you have a far higher chance of dying or being badly injured in a road accident.
As the scare stories keep coming, keep asking “cui bono?” Once you understand who may benefit, you are equipped to deal with Phobos and Diemos, the two horses that pull the chariot of ancient Greek war god Ares. Their names, of course, translate to “Fear” and “Panic.”
Ian Thorpe is a British satirical writer. Before retiring at a rather tender age following a serious illness, he was a consultant specializing in integrated digital networks. His projects involved him in utilities, banking and finance, oil and chemicals and many branches of commerce and government. He had some writing success in the 1970s and 1980s but had to put that aside because consultancy paid better. He has been contributing at America’s Right since March 2009.