The media-made fear about bird flu, like the one on fuel, rouses Paul
To judge by the contents of her trolley, the woman was not into organic or
free-range. But she was clearly health-conscious in an altogether different
way. She had given up chicken, she confided to her friend in my local
supermarket, because there was no point in taking any risks with this bird flu,
was there? Yes, she knew that the Government had said it was safe to eat
poultry. But best be on the safe side. Her friend nodded, not entirely
Funny thing, fear. There was a woman on the radio being interviewed as she
waited for a flu jab in a doctor's surgery somewhere. The inoculation, of
course, wouldn't be effective against avian flu, the reporter told her. Well,
it might help a bit, the woman said. Best be on the safe side.
We like our little panics in Britain. Remember the great petrol scare of a
few weeks back? I railed against that, you may recall, at the time (
Comment, 16 September), and was upbraided by some economist who said that
what the Great British Public were doing wasn't "panic buying" at all, but
demonstrating "a rational response in a world of uncertainty, as games theory
tells us". Be that as it may, it turned out to be pretty much a one-day wonder
that was almost entirely of media manufacture.
The media are happy
to feed our daftest instincts in this regard. It is a form of tabloid
titillation of a different kind, pandering to the same irrational primitivism
that horror films exploit to give us a cheap cathartic thrill. But occasionally
it can have serious consequences, as Charles Kindleberger's seminal 1978 book
Manias, Panics, and Crashes spelled out. Panic can be a
So it doesn't help when officials such as Sir Liam Donaldson, the Chief
Medical Officer, feed it with alarmist speculation. If bird flu did reach the
UK, and if, on the way, it mutated with a human-flu virus, then a quarter of
the population could be affected, with possibly 50,000 deaths. So, if it
happens, don't say the Government didn't warn you.
But set those
remarks in a context. First, there is no pandemic. So far, there have been just
117 confirmed cases of avian flu in humans in Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand, and
Cambodia, leading to 60 deaths. Of course 50,000 deaths would be terrible, but
when you learn that 12,000 Britons die from flu anyway each year, it sounds far
less apocalyptic. And even if the bird-flu virus could exchange genes with a
human-flu virus (in a person who was simultaneously infected with both), it
will almost certainly, Sir Liam concedes, not reach the UK this year, giving us
more time to build national stocks of the Tamiflu antiviral drug beyond the 14
million doses already in train.
At present, to get avian flu you
would have to seek an infected bird carcass (or some tainted bird-poo), dry it
out, pulverise it, and then inhale. This is not something most of us will try
As any cognitive therapist will tell you, panic attacks
are a disease of ignorance in which our flight-or-fight instincts lead us
ineluctably into trouble. When in quicksand, if you struggle, you sink. Classic
therapy offered to those experiencing anxiety is: face the symptoms - do not
run away; accept what is taking place - do not fight; relax rather than
tensing; and wait rather giving in to impatience.
In other words,
the paradox of panic is that when we are tempted, the best thing to do is . . .
nothing. The only trouble is, it's not so much fun.
Paul Vallely discusses religion with Paul Geldof in Faith in Africa
, on BBC Radio 2 at 8.30 p.m. on Tuesday.