Panicking can be such jolly fun

02 November 2006


The media-made fear about bird flu, like the one on fuel, rouses Paul Vallely's derision

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 convinced.
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 self-fulfilling prophecy.
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 at home.
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.

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