Avian history repeated as porcine farce
The swine flu scaremongers have no shame: four years ago they were making exactly the same wild claims about bird flu.
As swine flu hysteria, or flusteria for short, continues its spluttering conquest of the political class, the only thing our officials seem immune to is historical perspective. Just four years ago, they made similarly overblown claims for avian flu.
This weekend, UK health secretary Alan Johnson, while keen to flag up the government’s success in dealing with the flu, couldn’t resist a scaremongering qualification: ‘Our evidence from all previous pandemics is you get two phases… [Y]ou get a first wave which is often very mild and then you get a much more serious wave that comes along in the autumn and the winter.’ (1)
His partner in fear-laden hinting, UK chief medical officer Sir Liam Donaldson, was content to suggest that it was ‘premature’ to think of swine flu as a mild virus. Add to this the World Health Organisation’s pangloomian excitement over an imminent pandemic and anyone would think that this is the first time the authorities had caught a bad case of flusteria (2).
Yet back in the autumn of 2005, when few knew their H1N1 from their H5N1, avian flu dominated the headlines. And what headlines they were. The World Health Organisation estimated that the global death toll could be anywhere between two million and 7.4million. Speaking at the time, Dr David Nabarro, recently appointed as, incredibly, UN systems coordinator for human and avian influenza, declared: ‘I’m not, at the moment, at liberty to give you a prediction on numbers.’ Luckily for the fear-lovers, however, he seemed perfectly at liberty to speculate: ‘Let’s say, the range of deaths could be anything from five million to 150million.’ (3)
Keen to disseminate his doom-laden guesstimations as far and wide as possible, Nabarro later told the BBC: ‘It’s like a combination of global warming and HIV/Aids 10 times faster than it’s running at the moment.’ (4) Whatever that actually means, it was definitely meant to sound scary.
In January 2006, officials with a touch of the flusterics continued to preach the worst in the worst of all possible worlds. The Global Risks 2006 report asserted that bird flu had even supplanted global terrorism as the most threateningly threatening of threats. ‘If the avian flu H5N1 virus mutates to enable human-to-human transmission’, it asserted, ‘it may disrupt our global society and economy in an unprecedented way’ (5). Given that the report anointed avian flu as the new Spanish flu, to say that it was also unprecedented indicates just how discombobulated a threat avian flu was.
Avian flu prompted British politicians to similarly febrile flights of the imagination. Then, in April 2006, a gift fell from the sky: a dead swan was found in Fife, Scotland. Having identified avian flu as the source of the swan’s demise, chief medial officer Donaldson began speculating on how best to deal with the imminent flu pandemic. Working on the assumption that 100,000 children would be killed by the virus, he argued that school closures might cut that by half, meaning only 50,000 kids would perish. Shadow health secretary Andrew Lansley could clearly hear the bell tolling: ‘The balance of the argument points towards closing schools.’ (6)
Urban theorist Mike Davis captures well the self-propelling nature of a fear divorced from facts. In 2005, Davis, a man fated to make feverishly wrongheaded prophecies to fit his anti-capitalist, anti-industrial farming vision, called avian flu ‘a viral asteroid on a collision course with humanity’ (7). He wrote a book called The Monster at Our Door: The Global Threat of Avian Flu, so his hyperbole was perhaps to be expected. One reviewer of his book inadvertently touched upon the excess of imagination at the heart of Davis’s ‘analysis’, praising it as ‘a scientific detective story, a tale of potential horror, and a sociological thriller about our twenty-first-century world’ (8).
The failure of the viral asteroid to collide with humanity did not stop Davis from crossing his fingers in hopeful expectation: in February 2007, with an outbreak of avian flu at a Suffolk farm, Davis had another chance to wheel out his hackneyed enthusiasm for the self-induced end of mankind. ‘Just when most of us thought it was safe to go back into the water (or at least eat chicken and turkey), H5N1 raises its black dorsal fin and reminds us that it has unfinished business with the human race…’, he wrote (9). It is true: 160,000 did indeed die. But they were all turkeys. This, while sad for those turkeys hoping to make it through to Christmas, showed how little ‘unfinished business’ avian flu had with mankind.
With the avian flu pandemic failing to emerge, Davis has predictably seized upon swine flu instead over the past couple of weeks. ‘Stealing the limelight from our officially appointed assassin, H5N1, this porcine virus, is a threat of unknown magnitude’ (10), he wrote recently in a fit of hyperventilated pique, with absolutely no sense of shame over his earlier unfounded claims about bird flu killing off life as we know it.
What’s shocking about campaigners’ and politicians’ willingness to trump up the threat of swine flu is the wilfulness of their historical amnesia. Did the overreaction to avian flu contain no lessons at all? As of January 2008, the World Health Organisation had confirmed 348 cases of avian flu in humans, in Azerbaijan, Cambodia, China, Djibouti, Egypt, Indonesia, Iraq, the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Myanmar, Nigeria, Pakistan, Thailand, Turkey and Vietnam. Of these cases, 216 people died (11). Note the absence of the ‘million’ suffix. Moreover, avian flu did not mutate into a person-to-person strain. By 2007, even Nabarro was forced to admit that ‘the numbers of human cases are very, very small indeed, even though the virus has been moving through poultry in at least 50 countries in the last year, and led to millions of birds dying. This is really not a human disease, it is a poultry disease.’ (12)
History does repeat itself, it seems, first time in bird flu non-tragedy, second time in pig-headed farce.
Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.
Swine flu and the dramatisation of disease, by Frank Furedi
The day I was tested for swine flu, by Tessa Mayes
Swine flu: official panic is making things worse, by Rob Lyons
Read more at spiked issue Pandemic fears.
(1) Attempt to trace fellow passengers of latest Scots swine flu victim, The Times, 3 May 2009
(2) Swine flu: ‘premature’ to assume virus is mild, warns Sir Liam Donaldson , Daily Telegraph, 5 May 2009
(3) How many people could bird flu kill?, ABC News, 30 Spetember 2005
(4) Bird flu ‘could kill 150million people’, BBC News, 30 September 2005
(5) Study: Bird flu bigger threat than terrorism, MSNBC.com, 26 January 2006
(6) Closing schools in birdflu alert could save 50,000 lives, Daily Mail, 10 April 2006
(7) A nasty dose of avian paranoia, The Times, 12 November 2005
(8) Tomgram: Mike Davis on the Monster at Our Door,TomDispatch.com, 16 August 2005
(9) The plague of bird flu will erupt out of Java, not Suffolk, Guardian, 7 February 2007
(10) The swine flu crisis lays bare the meat industry’s monstrous power, Guardian, 27 April 2009
(11) Q&A: Bird flu, BBC News, 10 January 2008
(12) Experts play down risk to humans, BBC News, 3 February 2007