Terence Blacker: Mindless panic is turning us into wimps

We have become addicted to the exciting, scary idea that global disaster is about to finish us all off
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The Independent Online

Already there have been edgy jokes about whether, in the current climate, it is wise for me to keep hens who roam dangerously free. After all, there is water nearby. A death-dealing goose might fly in and infect them. Suddenly, owning a few sweet and innocent little Pekin bantams has begun to seem reckless, even a touch antisocial, like lighting up a cigarette in a crowded public place.

To judge by the week's headlines and news bulletins, my bantams may be pecking at the last-chance saloon. Even if they make it through the winter, all sorts of potentially virus-carrying birds will start arriving from abroad in the spring. Things are not looking too clever for me either. One moment I could be casually tending my birds, picking them up now and then for the odd chat which is so important in poultry-keeping, the next I could be another victim of the great plague which is approaching us like a hurricane heading for Florida.

By all reports, the figure of 50,000 dead from bird flu in Britain is pretty much a certainty - in fact, that could be a bit of a result, pandemic-wise. Rent-a-quote pundits have been bidding up probable mortality statistics like a lottery-winner at an auction: 150 million dead across the world was last figure I read, but it might have gone up since then.

Of course, when experts warn of dangers to come, it makes sense for governments to listen and to plan for the worst. But something else is happening - something uncomfortably close to mindless panic.

In Britain, a firm specialising in what it calls "survival equipment" has announced that the demand for bird flu masks has been such that it is working around the clock, seven days a week in order to fulfil orders. Americans have been solemnly advised that there is no health risk in eating turkey over Thanksgiving weekend. "Europe has gone mad," a man from the pharmaceutical company Roche has said, after stocks of its Tamiflu vaccine had sold out.

In the background, ignored amid the growing hysteria, the World Health Organisation has pointed out that "if people just paid attention to human risk from bird flu, they would understand that the risk from infection is very low."

But people will not understand. Anxiety will increase day by day, encouraged by the various businesses which make money out it, by journalists for whom every new version of the apocalypse means more newspapers sold, and by politicians, because there is nothing like mortal fear to keep voters docile, unquestioning and obedient.

There has been a plentiful and ever-changing variety of doomsday scenarios over the past few years. One version saw global terrorism, the clash of civilisations, as the ultimate threat to our way of life. Then, at moments when it became clear that, while occasional acts of terror may be unpleasant and tragic, they are unlikely to bring about the end of the world, something else would be produced to scare the wits out of us: a "biological time-bomb".

It was not that long ago since we were being warned by experts that, after the outbreak of BSE, a great CJD epidemic was on its way. The virus had a habit of remaining hidden for several years, apparently. Thousands - perhaps millions - of people who had enjoyed a hamburger could be wandering the streets, unaware of the biological time-bomb ticking within them. There was a period of high hysteria and cattle-burning. Then, quite suddenly and rather mysteriously, the great CJD threat receded from the headlines.

None of the experts were asked why their prediction had been so alarmingly wide of the mark. They were probably too busy warning of the next great crisis - Sars. Now, the arrival of birds flying north will have us all quaking and reaching for our bird flu masks.

Another reliable source of apocalyptic panic is the weather. Too much rain, too little, too hot, too cold, too windy: things which used to be simply part of meteorological pattern are now auguries of something much worse just around the corner. So when an over-excited weatherman speculated that this winter might be colder than usual, the reaction was not one of relief that the threat of disease in wildlife would be reduced but yet more anxiety and doom-laden headlines. "We don't want to cause a scare," said the man from the Met, but it was too late.

We have become hooked on fear, addicted to the exciting, scary idea that global disaster of some kind or another is about to envelope us, perhaps even finish us all off. It matters, this new timorousness. Those in power can appear on TV, looking concerned about a future so grave they are unable to give us details, and soon they will discover that it is easy to remove political freedoms under the cover of crisis-management.

A general, powerless sense of fear impinges on the way we live every day. Far from helping us to have a sensible attitude towards risk, it turns us into wimps. A speech about terror causes a run on gas-masks in the local army surplus stores. A rumour about a demonstration over the price of fuel causes half-mile queues at petrol stations.

It is time for the real war against terror - our own terror, that is. Fear is habit-forming, weakening. The more we allow various vested interests to frighten us with their apocalyptic warnings, the less capable we shall be of dealing with a real global crisis if, when, it comes along.

terblacker@aol.com

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