An epidemic of epidemics

spiked editor Mick Hume's Notebook in The Times (London).

Mick Hume

Mick Hume

Topics Politics
  • Once upon a time in Britain, an epidemic was considered a rare and exotic thing.

These days there are so many warnings of epidemics that it seems a wonder any of us are still around to hear them. The government Chief Medical Officer claims that we are now “in the grip of a smoking epidemic”. This sounds bizarre, given that the numbers of smokers and of people dying from lung cancer have both fallen sharply in my lifetime. But his misuse of the term does confirm that we are in the grip of a dangerous epidemic of epidemics.

Here is a sample of some other epidemics that we have been warned about: sexually transmitted diseases, hepatitis C, measles, mumps, MRSA superbugs, Aids, asbestosis, diabetes, depression, allergies, irritable skin, Alzheimer’s disease, variant CJD, workplace stress, self-harm, antisocial behaviour, binge drinking, drug and gun crime, ethnic violence, domestic violence and obesity. It is enough to drive anybody to consume the maximum recommended units of alcohol in a smoke-free pub.

Of course, “epidemic” makes a more melodramatic headline than “occurrence”. But sensationalist newspapers are not the only ones in the grip of epidemic fever. The warnings above were issued by government ministers and parliamentary committees, NHS bodies and the World Health Organisation, Amnesty International and the Association of Chief Police Officers. As the gangster-philosopher Tony Soprano once said: “Wherever there is a problem, you people see a disease.” And a disease, moreover, of epidemic proportions.

Listening to the alarmist discussion about epidemics, you would never suspect that people are living longer and healthier lives. At the start of the 20th century, life expectancy in England and Wales was 48.5 years for men and 52.4 for women. By the start of this century it was 75.6 years and 80.3 years respectively. One thing that has spread through the modern population is better health. Whatever diseases they catch, and whatever they do, most people still die of old age – and a much older age at that.

The epidemic of epidemic warnings can only spread the infection of unwarranted fear and anxiety. It also risks crying “wolf” once too often. When the authorities warn parents that refusing the MMR triple vaccination could cause epidemics of measles and mumps, many parents simply don’t believe them. After all, they have enough epidemics to worry about already.

  • Wheezing my way through the Government’s White Paper Choosing Health, I stopped at one sub-heading: “Health as a way of life”.

For me, that sums up the State’s unhealthy obsession with lifestyle. Surely the point should be to keep us well enough to enjoy life as we choose, not to change the way we live in order to meet health targets?

In his book The Tyranny of Health, my friend Dr Michael Fitzpatrick quotes the argument of Renee Dubos, the microbiologist, that it should be “part of the doctor’s function to make it possible for his patients to go on doing the pleasant things that are bad for them – smoking too much, eating and drinking too much – without killing themselves any sooner than is necessary”. New Labour’s plan to turn health into the point of our existence seems a sad waste of human life.

  • Many commentators seem less upset about the England football team’s dire performance against Spain than by the “disgrace” of Wayne “Raving” Rooney.

When substituted, he tore off the black armband worn as a mark of respect for Emlyn Hughes, the former England and Liverpool captain. There is one sure way to avoid any repetition of this “outrage”: tell all footballers to take off the black armbands they now seem expected to wear for almost every match. It is hard to go to a game without encountering a minute’s silence and black armbands – for former players and managers, for hostages killed in Iraq or Russia, and in one case, for an elderly lady who worked part-time in the ticket office. Like all inflation, this devalues the currency.

Sport and public grief are just about our only shared national experiences these days, but it is ridiculous to expect football to be a substitute for organised religion, or Rooney to play the choirboy. Perhaps it is time somebody issued a warning about an epidemic of empty, mawkish gestures.

Mick Hume is editor of spiked
This article is republished from The Times (London)

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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