Anxiety pandemics

We’ve had Spanish flu (1918-19), Asian flu (1957) and Hong Kong flu (1968-69). Then we had SARS, bird flu and recently, swine flu. There is also seasonal flu, which appears every winter and kills about 250,000 people annually, although this is often forgotten. The idea, “community of anxiety”, was coined in 2004 by the writer, Ian McEwan, in Saturday, a novel about events surrounding the Iraq war. A similar idea is information pandemics. Both ideas describe the way fear and anxiety are spreading throughout the world, fuelled primarily by the interconnectivity of digital communications. It can start with a single email, spread to a blog and end up on Twitter. The result is global panic on an unseen scale and outbreaks are difficult to contain.

In early May, the World Health Organization talked about the need to stockpile food and water due to the swine flu outbreak and raised the threat level to five out of a possible six. Meanwhile, airports were installing thermal scanners and newspapers revelled in the story as it grew more scary and spectacular. The whole world seemed to be running for cover wearing a variety of (mostly useless) facemasks. Fear was spreading fast, fed with a mixture of confusion and impotence. The threat is real enough. The 1918 outbreak killed 20-50 million people in less than 18-months while the Black Death in the 14th century wiped out a third of the European population in just two years. Even the Asia and Hong Kong pandemics killed about 1-2 million people apiece. But we are confusing what’s possible with what’s probable. The reason is a collective feeling – a mood if you like – that something big and nasty is coming our way. This is partly because a string of events, from 9/11 and climate change to the economic collapse, have left us feeling unsure about what’s next. It is possible that a real pandemic will eventually emerge.

It will probably start in an overcrowded Asian city and travel economy class on a jet to the US and Europe. We may be able to contain it or we may not. The science surrounding such things is uncertain. Interestingly though, there appears to be a sense that we deserve things like this to happen to us. In some way, we are collectively guilty (because we borrowed too much money or damaged the planet with our selfish, materialist ways, perhaps) and we need to be punished. There is also a warped sense of curiosity at play. What would the world look like after a genuine pandemic? Would the death of 50 million people give everyone more food to eat? Another example of the fear factor was the jet that flew low over New York in early May. People automatically assumed another terrorist attack and panic whipped around Manhattan like wildfire. It turned out to be someone taking photographs but by then it was too late. And this, perhaps, is the point. Information now flows around the world too quickly and there is not enough time to properly react or to separate fact from opinion, anecdote from analysis, or sensation from science. There is too much information and much of it is unreliable.

Thanks to Web 2.0 the old hierarchy of knowledge, where source related to trustworthiness and reliability, has broken down. Furthermore, the people we used to trust (scientists, politicians, religious figures) are now widely distrusted so we ignore them. Swine flu is killing about 0.1% of those it infects; the mortality rate for the 1918-19 variety was 2.5-5.0%. So very few people have died so far. This could still change but I doubt it. Nevertheless, the sense of impending apocalypse remains.

I wonder who benefits and who looses…….

HatTip Now and Next.

(tags Pandemics, epidemics, fear, anxiety, risk)


"You have a mind and other people. Start with those and change the world."

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3 thoughts on “Anxiety pandemics

  1. What a load of bollocks. The world hasn’t reacted to Swine Flu at all. From Day one, people have been treating it as a joke. Meanwhile young guy in the Waikato with no underlying conditions whatsoever just dies from Swine Flu. The point is that you’re comparing apples with oranges, NOBODY had an immunity to Great Flu pandemic, but the elderly have such an immunity because it is a similar strain to an old flu virus that came about in the 50s and recurred in Asia in the 70s that’s why the mortality rate appears deceptively low(because elderly and some Asians are immune). Younger people in the West on the other hand, are not immune and take virtually no precautions…and THEY are the vulnerable parties, this spells trouble.

    I remember listening to an interview on the BBC with a Science commentator. He remarked at the time of the Swine Flu outbreak was inundated with calls from Media organisations who had been previously trying to get him to overhype any number of random health scares were basically calling him up to ask ‘Ohh this Swine Flu thing, another overhyped scam right?’ and he was like ‘Well actually this time…’.

    The cited article is a very poor analysis of the issue, a new low for the blog.

    1. I havn’t heard about the Young death case as most cases that I heard of had underlying conditions as well. This time I do recall discussions of whether it is a a hoax or reality however Ministry has been spending some money. And if it is used up to avoide cases like above then sweet. Otherwise there will be more obsolete stock like bird flu. Bay of plenty went againstthe Ministry but other DHBs do have piles.

      The Ministry has been spending money….

      > *Which drug companies does the Ministry of Health have vaccine agreements > with?*The Ministry of Health has ordered an initial supply of 300,000 > doses of pandemic influenza vaccine from Baxter Healthcare Limited. The > Ministry also has an agreement for supply of vaccine from CSL. > *How much did the pandemic influenza vaccine cost*That information is > commercially sensitive and wont be released as discussions with vaccine > manufacturers are ongoing. > > *Is this pandemic influenza vaccine licensed?*Not at this stage. A > licensing decision is expected by the end of the year when additional > information becomes available. However, if the nature of the influenza virus > changes and starts causing a more severe illness, this could be > fast-tracked. >

      And it seems a number of contracts have been whipped up:

      > *Who else is doing this? i.e. which countries overseas*Global demand for > pandemic influenza vaccine is high and many countries have negotiated supply > agreements with manufacturers and placed orders for vaccine. >

      Also I have noticed a number of places now have handwash material installed at a number of places. It could be due to normal seasonal flu, or tammi flu but the timing coincides with Swine Flu as well.

  2. Waikato case:
    http://www.stuff.co.nz/waikato-times/news/2784284/Swine-flu-claims-Waikato-victim

    Gisbourne case (no underlying conditions):
    http://www.nzherald.co.nz/waikato/news/article.cfm?l_id=149&objectid=10582855

    NZ not to purchase vaccine except for first responders:
    http://www.stuff.co.nz/national/health/2783340/NZ-to-wait-and-see-on-swine-flu-vaccine

    Doesn’t sound like too much mass hysteria to me 😛

    Bird Flu was not a hoax, they had to disinfect almost all of Hong Kong to get the ‘low’ casualties that they did. The virus could only be transferred between bird meat & humans, it was not human to human transfer. The worry was that it would mutate to human-to-human, and in fact bird flu had mutated to a human-to-human virus in Indonesia but quarantine limited the fallout. Swine Flu has ALREADY mutated human-to-human after decades as a pig virus. Hence why it’s like comparing apples to oranges.

    The question you should be asking is not why is Swine Flu an issue but why is a potential epidemic NOT an issue this time around. The mainstream media has been universally plugging the line that we’ve been overreacting despite publishing details of cases where people have been dying with minor underlying conditions(question what ‘underlying conditions’ means, if you examine the cases you will find that actually sometimes ‘smoking’ is classified as an underlying condition…smoking might be healthy but should that mean that you die of the flu??) or no underlying conditions at all, in my mind this should be cause to question, not to toe the line.

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