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Swine Flu - Fear Is A Bigger Contagion

Mal Fletcher
Posted 29 April 2009
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The outbreak of swine flu in a number of nations worldwide is rightly a cause for concern. But it is not yet a cause for wide-spread anxiety.

The threat is real. Yet this situation is already showing signs of morphing into yet another example of the science and politics of fear.

Whatever we do to take action against swine flu, we must also guard against the panic or malaise that sustained fear brings.

Cases of infection have surfaced in countries as far apart as New Zealand, China and Israel. Around the world, governments and health authorities are trying to curtail the spread of the disease, by discouraging travel to affected areas and providing fast-track support to laboratories that are looking for an antidote.

Of course, this is the right response to a threat that may (I stress may) reach pandemic proportions. The 1914 Spanish flu, a variant of the H1N1 virus we now face, killed between 20 and 100 million people, depending on which reports you read.

The World Health Organization has raised the pandemic alert level from phase 3 to phase 4, out of a possible 6 levels. This means that the virus has now reached a level of sustained human-to-human transmission.

This week The Lancet, a widely-known and respected medical journal, issued a press release saying that it 'expects the number of those infected to increase and the spread of infection to expand.'

Meanwhile, The Times reports that hundreds of schoolchildren in New York may be infected with the virus and some US health authorities believe that the world is on track for a pandemic.

In this global village, though, too many people are prone to turn real public threats into self-seeking opportunities to build constituencies or sell products, agendas or ideologies.

Late last week, some British economists and politicians were telling us that it may take a generation for us to claw our way back to financial viability as a nation. Some no doubt have pure motives for saying this; others are doing so only for short-term political advantage.

The media, of course, gladly gobbles this kind of thing up and drip feeds it to the public over as many days as possible. Every 'angle' of the story is pursued. Nothing new of substance is uncovered most of the time, but the story is kept alive.

In the media, bad news sells; in politics, it diverts the public gaze - away from mistakes made.

Meanwhile out in the real world, where most of us live, 'be afraid, be very afraid' is the dominant after-taste following weeks of political and media football on the subject of recession.

This week, though, recession is becoming old news. So the headlines focus on a new cause for fear.

In human terms, fear is a good motivator in the short-term; it helps us react to emergencies, raising the fight or flight response mechanisms.

In the medium to longer term, though, fear is a very poor option. It is counterproductive, robbing us of the ability to think objectively and strategically and to act decisively.

If allowed to grow unchecked in our minds, fear breeds terror, panic and irrational responses to problems. In short, it cripples our ability to act wisely or creatively.

It can grow so strong that it quickly overpowers hope, becoming our default emotion when we think about the future.

At the level of community, sustained fear is a potential pandemic far more dangerous than swine flu. It spreads rapidly through entire populations, spawning paralysis of the mind and will.

We are social beings who are heavily influenced in our behaviour and attitudes by the dominant culture around us. We may deny this, proud of our autonomy and independence of thought, but recent studies have shown just how much we take our cues from group-think, the so-called 'wisdom of crowds'.

Fear is a contagion that cannot be checked using antidotes created in a laboratory. It feeds on intangibles, things that go bump in the night.

We must keep our sense of perspective. In much of the media coverage about the virus, precious little has been offered in the way of helpful information. Much has been said that creates more heat than light.

With headlines about swine flu taking pole position on 24/7 news channels, much has been made of the WHO's threat-level increase. Yet I've seen nobody, in the mainstream media newscasts, telling people what that increase actually means.

Why tell people that the threat level has shifted from phase 3 to phase 4 without explaining what those levels actually mean?

The lack of precision, the use of only broad brush strokes, robs us of the detail we need to find perspective.

At the epicentre of the virus, in Mexico, an estimated 159 people have died from the disease. Of course, that's 159 people too many! But who amongst our leaders and media pundits is reminding us that Mexico has a population of 109 million?

In Britain, much has been made of the fact that cases have been found within the UK. But just how many people have been infected? As of yesterday, two that we know about - a hapless young couple from Scotland who were unfortunate enough to take their honeymoon in Cancun at just the wrong time.

They were hospitalized - mainly, I think, as a containment precaution - and they're responding well to treatment. Seven of the 22 friends with whom they've had contact since returning to Britain have shown only mild symptoms of the disease, and these people haven't even been hospitalized; they've been treated with anti-retroviral drugs at home.

That's two people infected out of a population of sixty million. At present levels, the chances of you contracting swine flu if you live in Britain are one in 30 million.

Of course, those odds will narrow significantly if a pandemic takes hold. The concern is that the virus may already have spread too widely to be totally contained. Or that it will mutate so quickly that is will present us with previously unforeseen challenges.

Again, though, raising public anxiety levels is counter-productive.

We must also hold our political leaders accountable - not for the problem itself, which is beyond their control, but for the leadership skill they show in the face of it.

There are only three rules for leading people during a crisis: communicate, communicate, communicate.

Leaders must articulate clearly the challenges faced and the current status of the group's ability to respond. They must, at the same time, enlist the support and input of people who are qualified to offer pragmatic assistance and strategic planning.

What our political leaders must not do is speak publicly in vague terms, using words that mean nothing because nobody has bothered to explain them.

Above all, they must offer that all important element of hope, that sense that whilst the threat may be very real, so is the public's general common sense in facing times of trauma - if they're given the right information and support.

FDR was right: we have nothing to fear but fear itself. He wasn't suggesting that fear is not helpful in some situations, but that sustained fear can do more damage to us as individuals and communities than the things we fear.

One of the children who tested positive for the virus after catching it at her New York school, told The Times: 'It does seem scary when they put you in isolation, but it goes away. It's something to be afraid of, but you have to go on with your life.'

Out of the mouths of babes...



Copyright Mal Fletcher, 2009

Follow Mal on Twitter: great comment constantly updated, www.twitter.com/malfletcher

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Keywords: swine flu | fear | pandemic | epidemic | spanish flu

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