Pig ignorance

OK, the prospect of a swine flu pandemic has been with us for almost two weeks. Last week was the media epicentre, during which the TV and newspapers whipped a potential health risk into a panic. Without getting into the intricacies of virology – because, hey, I’m not an expert on such matters and wouldn’t wish to get out of my depth – these are my thoughts on what just happened. They are merely my thoughts. This is not a newspaper article, but a blog entry, written mostly off the top of my head and not researched, and intended as a personal reflection upon the way the media dealt with the story, which is what interests me.

Swine flu (whose name itself caused some head-scratching but you know which flu I’m talking about) was first reported on April 21, when the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed that what was initially thought to be “late season influenza” in Mexico was actually be a new strain of H1N1. Since, as I understand it, this is a mutation of four other strains of flu, and that the World Health Organisation haven’t even confirmed that it actually originated from pigs or one of the “manure lagoons” reported in the papers, we don’t even know if it jumped from pigs to humans, or whether or not it was caused by intensive farming in Mexico. This is a pity, as it would have been fun to say that the disease spread and thus presented a potential global threat because we can fly, and pigs can’t.

The beginning of the week saw the British media in full panic mode, with particular honours going to the Express, the red-tops (who found that “pig flu” took up less letters than “swine flu”) and – from where I was sitting – the stupid free London papers, one of which, The London Paper, ran with the comforting headline: TUBE ALERT AS SWINE FLU ‘ALREADY IN CITY’, deliberately and specifically targeting the Tube travellers who pick up the useless fucking rag on the way home. Know your audience. And treat them with contempt.

The TV news was no better, and I include the BBC, filling the screen with maps and graphs and repeated footage of people in Mexico City in facemasks, and filling our heads with numbers and projections. (I came to admire chief medical officer Sir Liam Donaldson, who kept a cool head, and told Jon Snow that he hoped Glastonbury wouldn’t be at risk as he was a big Springsteen fan.) There exists a constant and very real risk of a mutated strain of flu spreading through the population at some stage, mostly thanks to the mobility of humankind, but the possibility that THIS WASN’T THE BIG ONE was not allowed to get in the way of a good scare story. Whatever your views on risk management, it seems that the British media runs on a macabre brand of wishful thinking. Be careful what you wish for.

I have been following the pandemic online and in the papers (and counting the facemasks on public transport – four), and for me, the first symptom of good sense came when the Gurkha story pushed sensational speculation about a global plague off the front covers of the Times and the Telegraph on Thursday. The Guardian have been fairly sensible, too, with columnist Simon Jenkins breaking ranks and voicing the skepticism felt by many of us, and Ben Goldacre advising caution and arguing that we just don’t know. Which we don’t. Once again, our news has been about what might happen rather than what is happening. The biggest risk, it seems, is that people in this country are so fed up with the news media and so distrustful of our politicians, that we automatically downgrade any alert – if the World Health Organisation says it’s a five, we’ll treat it as if it’s a three. (Some will always panic-buy bread if they see an empty supermarket shelf on the news, but we’ve been stung so many times now, even this reactionary tendency is slower to grab the shopping bags.)

My instinct is to think: relatively poor country, intensive livestock farming, increase in tourism, fast spread of virus. I may be wrong. But with so many conflicting messages being flung at us from a media competing with itself for a headline, it’s been difficult to know what’s actually going on. If it really was going to be 28 Days Later, it would be the discrepancy between tabloid alarmism and official advice that killed us all. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one to be amazed at how tricky it appeared to be for the authorities in this country to track down everybody who’d arrived here from Mexico once the nature of the flu had been confirmed. (It’s almost a relief for those us who feel we live in a police state to know that we can still move about, coughing and sneezing and with pig’s ears growing out of holes in our souvenir Sombreros, under the radar.) I felt very sorry for Iain and Dawn Askham, the honeymooning couple from Scotland, who were splashed across the cover of the London Evening Standard as if perhaps it was all their fault. (They’re better now, by the way. Although the Sunday tabloids tried to whip something up out of the fact that Iain went to a Doves gig and was told by the hospital that treated him not to mention it. Fair enough – we don’t want an avian flu panic too.)

On Saturday, with a grand total of no deaths from swine flu yet reported in Canada, the UK, Spain, Germany, New Zealand, Israel, France, Costa Rica, South Korea, Italy, Switzerland, Hong Kong, Austria, Denmark, or the Netherlands … and only one in North America (a 23-month old Mexican child), Mexico revised its death toll from 176 to 101, and the tide seemed to turn. Certainly Sunday’s Observer came out almost entirely swine-free, perhaps even defiantly so. (At the NME we once advertised an issue, with great irony, as a “Morrissey-free zone”.) Not that 101 dead people isn’t something to feel bad about, but if 75 Mexicans have come back from the dead, that has to be a good new story. (NB: I don’t actually believe they have done this.)

When, at the height of the panic, our own newspapers were forced to lead on the first “onward transmission” in the UK to someone who hadn’t been to Mexico – a friend of Iain and Dawn the hapless honeymooners who did go to Mexico – you knew they were in trouble. When the second one, and the first in England, was reported, the Director of Public Health for South-West England Dr Gabriel Scally told the BBC, disappointingly, “Like many of the other cases in the UK, it has been a relatively mild illness for him.” No! That’s no good!

The papers must have taken their ineffective blue masks off and breathed a sigh of relief when a photoshopped Madeleine McCann reared her pretty head again on Friday to save them from running headlines like MAN IN SCOTLAND STILL OFF WORK or WE COULD STILL ALL DIE, REALLY, SO PLEASE BUY THIS NEWSPAPER.

Of course, it could still happen. I do not gloat. I merely despair at the accelerated media age in which we live. Because I always think it’s best to follow the money, I noted that shares in Roche, which manufactures Tamiflu, and GlaxoSmithKline, who make the less aggressively-marketed Relenza (both of which reduce the symptoms of flu, if taken within 48 hours of infection, but won’t cure it or mitigate against it), went up this week. A lot of ineffective facemasks were bought too. The Mexican tourism industry took a big hit and airline shares went down, but it wasn’t all bad news.

I expect Kimberly-Clark and other tissue manufacturers will see an upturn too. Those evil tissue companies!

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