Bird flu and Chicken Little culture

Why are critics of the politics of fear turning into scaremongers about the threat of an avian flu pandemic?

Mick Hume

Mick Hume

Topics Politics

For its part, the British government has tried to hold the line against hysteria and appear reasonable, issuing a new ‘don’t panic’ message. But it is repeatedly being outbid by opposition politicians, experts, campaigners and media voices accusing it of complacency or a cover-up, and demanding more and more precautionary measures. In this, New Labour has made a rod for its own back, by institutionalising the precautionary principle at the heart of government policy on everything from food dye to mobile phones, and by emphasising the need to reduce risk on every front. Now, fearful of being accused of not intervening enough to prevent a potential threat to public health (almost the most serious charge a politician can face these days), the government’s response is to up the ante further, to try to demonstrate that it is fully prepared. And so we go on.

Why is this reality gap growing wider now? We have talked for some time on spiked about the creeping spread of the politics of fear and the rise of risk-aversion, particularly in relation to matters of personal health and lifestyle. We have reached the point where we often seem to live in a sort of Chicken Little culture, in which many are predisposed to panic about the sky falling in every time an acorn falls on their head (or a trace of nut appears in their food).

Yet with bird flu, we appear to be witnessing an even worse loss of perspective. It is striking how many people will say that they agree with spiked’s criticism of other manufactured panics, but not this one. For them the imminent prospect of a bird flu pandemic is real, like the fox that ate Chicken Little while she was worrying about non-existent threats. In particular, many of those who accuse the Bush and Blair regimes of exaggerating the threat of terrorism are now castigating those same governments for not doing enough to counter the threat of bird flu, and for covering up the real risk it poses (see A tale of two scares, by Brendan O’Neill).

A bird flu pandemic in humans, if it were ever to occur, would indeed be a terrible thing, immeasurably more dangerous than the scaremongering nonsense we frequently hear about the threat from pesticides in food or whatever. Yet the public and political furore about a hypothetical bird flu epidemic caused by an as-yet non-existent disease is not so very different from the other scares of our time. Indeed, it is drawing its strength from the long list of health panics that have infected the body politic in recent years. The imminent prospect of a bird flu pandemic appears plausible, precisely because it jabs at a raw public nerve that has already been over-sensitised.

For a start, the notion of uncontrollable new diseases and viral strains emerging to threaten civilisation has been a mainstay of health debates in the West for some time. Despite the fact that we live longer and healthier lives than ever before, thanks in part to the wonders of modern medicine, our loss of faith in society’s achievements means that we fear the worst from any passing bacteria. Ever since we were told that heterosexual AIDS would cause carnage across Western societies, it seems there has always been a possible disease-related disaster just around the corner. We have been warned about the emergence of new super bugs, even new plagues. We have been told to expect massive death tolls from new strains such as vCJD – the human form of mad cow disease – from such alien diseases as ebola or the flesh-eating bug, Necrotising fasciitis, and from fresh global epidemics such as SARS.

The failure of each of these in turn to wreak the predicted devastation in the West has done nothing to stop the stream of disease scares. As each one fades from the headlines, another has come along to take its place. It seems that we have had to live with the constant expectation of medical catastrophe, with experts always assuming the worst-case scenario to be the most likely.

In these doom-laden circumstances, the argument that a fatal flu epidemic is imminent has inevitably taken hold. After all, flu is a real illness that we all have experience of, a far more plausible menace than a flesh-eating bug. At times, health authorities have almost appeared to be trawling for evidence of a flu epidemic. Only a couple of winters back the UK government’s chief medical officer came under fire from leading doctors for declaring on thin evidence that the spread of flu had reached epidemic proportion – a clear case of premature epidemicitis.

The panic about a potential bird flu pandemic also feeds off the constant diet of food scare stories that we have been force-fed for years. Despite the fact that our general diet in the West is now better and cheaper than ever before, we have learnt to fear our food as a health risk. Since eating beef was blamed for vCJD, leading to predictions of half a million deaths among carnivorous Britons, many other foodstuffs have been put under the microscope and labelled a potential menace. Normal and necessary parts of our diet, such as salt and sugar and fat, have also been re-defined as toxins to be banished from our bodies.

Chicken – the white meat choice of the healthy eating lobby – has often been one of the ‘safe havens’ sought out by those scared away from other foods. Now our feathered friend has been put in the frame for bird flu. The fact that no link has ever been shown between eating chicken and contracting avian flu, or that most people in Britain only ever meet a chicken in the chilled section of the supermarket, makes no difference. The everyday familiarity of chicken makes the threat seem all the more plausible. In several European countries, the poultry industry appears to be in imminent danger of ruin.

Here the fear of bird flu also connects with widespread concerns about modern man’s supposedly unhappy relationship with nature. Campaigners claim that the real danger of a pandemic is closely related to the spread of modern battery farming techniques, and the supermarket-driven demand for cheap chicken at whatever the costs to public health and the environment. These are the usual suspects in most food scares. The allegations ignore the evidence that bird flu has struck in developing societies where – as happened in rural Turkey recently – children catch it from playing with the heads and bodies of infected dead birds. Somehow living in a developed Western society where chickens are farmed rather than living as members of the family, and kids get to play with video games rather than poultry carcasses, doesn’t seem like such a bad thing. Yet the bird flu furore has been further stoked up by these increasingly popular prejudices about modern farming and humanity’s supposed abuse of nature. Facts are no competition for emotive messages today.

Finally, the fear of bird flu has taken wing for much the same reason that other, more ridiculous, health scares can appear credible. It has the right qualities to play upon the fears and insecurities of our atomised societies. The notion of an invisible, intangible threat that comes out of the air has already exerted a powerful influence through panics about mobile phone masts or electric power lines. The trust-nobody-or-nothing idea that the familiar can suddenly be a threat is a standard component of many panics. And like the fear of terrorism, the worry about an ‘inevitable’ bird flu pandemic speaks to many individuals who feel powerless to determine their fate these days. Thus Oprah Winfrey, seen as a touchstone of popular opinion in America, has declared that she feels ‘helpless’ in the face of the inevitable pandemic, and is getting vaccinated immediately. (Good luck with that one, Oprah – even a billionaire celebrity queen will find it hard to buy a vaccine against a flu strain that has not developed and may never do so.)

The reality gap between the facts about bird flu and the politicised public reaction to it has left us with a confused and dangerous mess of a situation where, as I have noted elsewhere, UK policy seems to be run in tandem by those two old BBC sitcom characters simultaneously shouting ‘Don’t Panic!’ and ‘We’re Doomed!’.

Of course there are sensible, if limited, contingency plans that the professionals ought to be preparing to deal with bird flu around the world. But that is something else entirely from the public circus in which everybody in the West competes to see who can best talk up the threat in order to appear the most determined to counter it.

There has been much talk of late in Britain about the lessons of the foot-and-mouth epidemic, or of SARS. One real lesson of these crises, however, has rarely been mentioned. The worst damage done when foot-and-mouth broke out five years ago did not involve that non-fatal animal disease. It was done by the authorities’ heavy-handed attempts to show that they were taking no risks, by declaring the countryside ‘closed’ and sending in the military to wage war on cows and sheep.

Similarly, the worst damage done during the international SARS outbreak three years ago had little to do with the disease itself. That was identified, contained and turned back in exemplary fashion by health agencies and experts, with around 800 deaths worldwide rather than the many thousands predicted. The wider damage was done by the politically-motivated attempts to demonstrate that the authorities were protecting public health, by effectively quarantining entire economies and closing down travel with dire – and completely unnecessary – consequences.

The Chicken Little culture makes it almost impossible to have a sensible discussion about how we should respond to something like bird flu, and to situate these fears in some wider perspective. The sky may not be falling on our heads just yet, but even some of the more rational among us do appear to be getting clouds on the brain.

Mick Hume is editor of spiked.

Read on:

Bird flu: an infectious panic, by Rob Lyons

Apocalypse from now on, by Dr Michael Fitzpatrick

The politics of fear, by Frank Furedi

(1) Human Avian flu pandemic risk increases,, 20 February 2006

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Topics Politics


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