On the age of media overstatement and living in fear of everything

Today it’s the turn of swine flu (a strain of Influenza A virus subtype H1N1, whatever that means). From 2004 to 2007, it was avian influenza (H5N1, for those who worry enough to care). 2003 brought us the Michael Jackson look thanks to SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, a nasty type of pneumonia). Post-9/11 anthrax scare anyone? And we have to go back to 1999, for the Y2K problem.

Of course, I am not talking of pandemics, which is an epidemic of infectious diseases that spreads through populations across a large, region, country, continent… or planet. Nope. What I refer to is the exaggeration and overstatement by public bodies like the World Health Organisation and governments about potential global catastrophes.

Of course, they’ll tell you that they’d rather be safe than sorry. FT reports that Margaret Chan, the head of the WHO is trying to “hit back at critics who have accused [WHO] of over-reaction” (FT.com).

On the meantime, the pharmatheutical firms make a killing selling untested vaccinations to governments for a pandemic that only exists in the panmedia mind. But then, the media are only interested in health, their financial health.

A friend of mine returned from a holiday in Cancun last April 13, and to our surprise, he’s still alive and kicking. I guess I should push him to sell his story to the papers and claim my share of the booty. But it was the government’s commercial I just saw on TV that brought me to despair.

Journalists preaching doom (credit crunch, immigrant flows, global warming, house price drops, whatever) makes complete sense, as their living depends on (selling) advertising space. But governments promoting the public fear? C’mon, this is obviously a red herring. All of a sudden, everybody is worried about the fellow commuter sneezing on the way to work, instead of doing what s/he has been doing for the last 6 months: worrying about actually having a job to go to tomorrow.

Classic herd management.

However, to be honest, thanks to the 24h news craze, real pandemics are highly unlikely to happen in today’s world. The moment something goes out of hand in a small corner of the world, everybody knows it and action is promptly taken.

The US Centres for Disease Control (CDC) reports that 20,000 people die in US of A due to common flu and its complications every year. Every year.

The moment you start creating para-reality and people believe you, they handed you the strings for their puppet-life. Good job.


PS. No human was harmed in the writing of this post. Food for thought: The avian flu H5N1 took with it 59 people worldwide, almost 0.00000094% of the global population. The Mexican government has just scaled down the number of deaths due to swine flu to 19 confirmed deaths down from 176.


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