Ten years of fear

From Y2K to the threat of a flu-induced End of Days, a variety of panics went global in the Noughties.

Nathalie Rothschild

Topics Politics

The rumours around the Y2K bug, which predicted a global system failure at the moment that 2000 began, was an apt introduction to the apocalyptic Noughties. And just as appropriately, the decade was rounded off by the fearfest of the Copenhagen summit, where world leaders, NGO workers and green protesters gathered for 10 days of self-flagellation, moral posturing and doomsday predictions.

This has been the decade of panics, overblown fears, health scares and general scaremongering, where human relationships and human interventions into the natural world have come to be seen as a risky business, as potentially lethal, toxic and damaging. There was the paedophile panic, reaching its zenith with the establishment of the Independent Safeguarding Authority in the UK in 2009, requiring up to 11million adults to undergo criminal records checks; bans on smoking in public places around the world, defended on the basis of spurious theories of the dangers of second-hand smoke; the non-existence of ‘weapons of mass destruction’ justifying a seemingly never-ending, elusive global war on terror; and many, many more scares. The Noughties panics have reframed both our everyday lives and international relations.

Although a certain popular politician rallied his nation with the slogan ‘the audacity of hope’, whenever humans display any nerve to try to exercise some control over the world, you can be sure that an army of risk analysts, health and safety officials, misanthropes and conspiracy theorists (sometimes they are one and the same person) will mobilise to denounce the efforts as the root of all evil.

The good news is that a common feature of the panics of the Noughties has been that the overblown figures and doomsday scenarios never seem to materialise. Here are just a few examples of the catastrophes that never were.


The panic: The images of the Twin Towers imploding are the most iconic of the Noughties. Terrorism was, of course, a real problem in the Noughties, as evidenced by the destruction of 9/11, Bali, Madrid, London, Mumbai, Afghanistan and elsewhere. But the fear of terrorism is driven by more than the facts – it is underpinned by Western societies’ own feeling of vulnerability and their existential panic about the alien, the predictable, the uncontrollable and, in the case of WMD, even the non-existent.

Since 9/11, the persistent narrative of the global terror threat is that alien forces are striking at the heart of Western civilisation; that terrorism is a faceless, foreign threat. Hence, the War on Terror has been constituted by our leaders not just as a campaign against a physical threat, but also an ideological battle of ideas.

The truth: It is now largely accepted that al-Qaeda is better understood as an idea rather than as an organisation with a set number of members, a clear leadership structure and so on. But while it is true that terrorism itself is an increasingly amorphous force, our inability to name or describe the culprits and their motivations also reflects an existential confusion in the West, an insecurity about what it is over here that is worth defending.

While our leaders desperately try to locate the terror threat elsewhere, the nihilism and anti-modernism of terrorists is not as alien as has been made out to be. Those involved in the major terrorist attacks of the decade were influenced by the same sense of disillusionment with progress and modernity that is rampant in contemporary society. The fact that they have consistently targeted symbols of the modern world like luxury hotels, night clubs, financial centres and train systems is a testament to this.

The legacy of the Bush and Blair era – a legacy modified but not dismantled under their successors – is an ongoing war on liberties in the name of a war on terror and an understanding of human societies as fragile, vulnerable, always teetering on the brink of eruption.


The panic: A 2004 House of Commons Health Committee Report neatly summed up the inflated claims of the perils of an obesity epidemic, claiming that obesity had grown by almost 400 per cent in 25 years and ‘will soon surpass smoking as the greatest cause of premature loss of life’. It warned that ‘today’s generation of children will be the first for over a century for whom life-expectancy falls’ and that obesity is associated with ‘coronary heart disease, diabetes, kidney failure, osteoarthritis, back pain and psychological damage’ as well as cancer. The government estimated the economic costs of obesity plus overweight ‘conservatively’ at £6.6–7.4billion.

For governments in the UK and elsewhere, these dire prospects for ever-fattening populations require some tough measures, of course. Enter campaigns to ban junk-food advertising to children, the routine weighing of school pupils (with puppy fat now being seen as an early warning sign of a short, overweight, unhappy life), and even the forcible removal of children from ‘overfeeding’ parents by social services. Not to mention the introduction of celebrity chef’s Jamie Oliver’s unpalatable school dinners, served with a generous helping of hectoring and moralising.

The truth: So has there been a tidal wave of ill-health in the Noughties? Not at all. In fact, life expectancy continues to rise. Contrary to the pronouncements of government advisors, health officials and celebrity chefs, there is no inevitable link between growing midriffs and physical and psychological society-wide breakdown. Though a balanced diet and exercise may make you feel better in a variety of ways, enforced mass enrolment with Weight Watchers would be an over-reaction, as indeed would be the enforced removal of children from chubby parents.

Extreme obesity is associated with premature mortality, but is the fat alone to blame? There has been an intensifying campaign in the past decade to make us lose weight, even though there is a glaring lack of evidence to suggest that weight loss necessarily improves health prospects. A simple combination of better food and moderate activity can raise health quality significantly – even where it doesn’t lead to a lower body mass index. The fat-but-fit have similar life expectancies to the thin-and-sedentary.

The anti-obesity campaign is shallow, unscientific and moralistic, with the basic messages being that fat is bad and thin is good, and that everyone who is unsophisticated enough to scoff ‘junk food’ or to drive instead of walk to work is morally inferior.

Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS)

The panic: The outbreak of SARS in east Asia in 2003 caused widespread panic and alarm even in countries that were not affected by the disease.

The first official mention about the possibility of a new disease came in February 2003, when the World Health Organisation (WHO) began investigating cases of an atypical pneumonia in the Guangdong province of southern China. One month later, when there had been 300 confirmed cases in China, seven health workers who had dealt with a patient with the same disease in Hanoi, Vietnam, died. When the number of cases increased to 22 just days later, the WHO wasted little time to issue a global alert about the new atypical pneumonia, suggesting that any patient showing the symptoms of SARS should be isolated. The WHO also issued emergency travel advice.

This is when SARS hit the headlines, rumours of a worldwide health threat spread and the sale of face masks rocketed, even in the US which, as it turned out, suffered no SARS-related deaths and only had a handful of confirmed cases of infection, all contracted abroad.

The truth: In January 2004, the BBC reported that, in the months after SARS first appeared in November 2002, nearly 800 people died. The WHO announced that the disease had been fully contained the next July, but still warned the virus would continue to pose a threat.

So, thankfully, in the end, the death toll was relatively small, but not before a WHO-led global panic around the disease led to breathtaking clampdowns on civil liberties.

China was initially widely criticised for not allowing the WHO access and for downplaying the seriousness of the outbreak. As a reaction, Chinese authorities went overboard on the containment front, enforcing quarantine, closing schools and shortening public holidays. In Hong Kong, some residents were placed under isolation orders, while others were moved to ‘holiday camps’. The Thai government forced foreigners from SARS-affected regions to wear face masks at all times or face a jail sentence. Thais returning from these regions had to stay at home for 14 days. The Australian government, among others, took powers of arrest over anyone refusing to cooperate with quarantine orders.

Trade in infected cities, including in Toronto in Canada, fell significantly. Chinatowns in cities across the world saw a drop in customers and big sports events and concerts in affected countries were cancelled or relocated, including East Asia gigs by Santana and the International Ice Hockey Federation’s Women’s World Championship tournament which was due to take place in Beijing – though neither of these cancellations constituted any great loss to the Asians, or to mankind.

Avian flu

The panic: As the swine flu hysteria slowly abates, it looks set to go the way of bird flu: to the dustbin of overblown health scares that have politicians, health officials and commentators in a flap and the general population in distress for, as it gradually and inevitably transpires, no particularly good reason.

In the autumn of 2005, avian flu – aka bird flu or H5N1 – dominated the headlines. The WHO estimated that the global death toll could be anywhere between two million and 7.4million. Dr David Nabarro, who was appointed to the rather remarkable post of senior United Nations system coordinator for avian and human influenza in 2009, told the BBC: ‘It’s like a combination of global warming and HIV/Aids 10 times faster than it’s running at the moment.’

Commentators claimed that bird flu was deadlier than any other previous known flu virus strain. Some went as far as asserting that it had supplanted terrorism as the biggest threat to human kind.

The truth: For some reason, WHO statistics of confirmed human cases of the H5N1 influenza published in August 2009 were not as headline-grabbing as those initial speculative figures. As it turns out, there have been only 440 confirmed human cases since 2003. Out of those, there were 262 deaths. Sad? Of course. Pandemic? No.

The H5N1 panic, however, had grave consequences. As the flu broke out amongst poultry and wild birds in Asia, both poultry workers and the tourism industry there suffered massive economic losses. And the public across the world was unnecessarily nervous about consuming poultry and travelling abroad. Avian flu has not mutated into a person-to-person strain, as had been feared. However, lest spiked be accused of ‘humancentrism’, we’d better also mention the traumatic effect the H5N1 virus had on the bird community: 160,000 turkeys died.

Swine flu

The panic: While 2005 was the year of the bird flu, 2009 was the year of the pig flu. Whatever the biological differences between the H5N1 and H1N1 viruses, the two outbreaks shared all the characteristics of a Noughties-style pandemic fear. It goes a little something like this: A potentially deathly virus breaks out somewhere in the world (typically in an exotic country, in this case Mexico). Even though thousands of people die from flu-related syndromes around the world every year, even though society in general has learnt to cope with flu threats, even though millions of people continue to die from other, long-established and curable diseases each year, an unhealthy amount of attention, resources, speculation and worrying is expanded on the new exotic flu. Inflated figures emerge, pandemic threat alerts are raised, and countries suffer economic backlashes as people scale down travel to affected areas. In general, the overreaction causes more harm than the disease itself.

The H1N1 influenza virus was first detected in Mexico in April 2009. When Margaret Chan, head of the WHO, raised the pandemic threat alert level from four to five in response to the swine flu outbreak, she declared: ‘All of humanity is under threat.’ As the global death toll hit 80 and the scare reached Britain, an official at the UK National Institute for Medical Research warned that the total number of deaths could reach 50million. A professor at Warwick University in England made an even more dire prediction, warning that the virus could wipe out 120million people worldwide. However, he added: ‘I am worried, but you don’t want to panic too much – it may go away.’ Phew!

The truth: According to WHO figures, as of 13 December 2009 more than 208 countries and overseas territories or communities had reported laboratory-confirmed cases of pandemic influenza H1N1 2009, including at least 10,582 deaths. Of course, the horror of thousands of deaths is not to be diminished, but the absence of the predicted millions is striking.

In the case of swine flu – as with SARS and avian flu before it – what should rightly have been a cause of concern for the medical establishment – a novel influenza virus which could potentially lead to many deaths – became treated not as a medical issue to be dealt with through discrete, scientific solutions, but as an anxious disaster movie-like parable of the perils of modern life.

These were the most notable scare stories of the past 10 years. The list of panics generated in the Noughties could also include: the purported perils of blood clots after flying, also known as ‘economy-class syndrome’; binge drinking; second-hand smoke; mobile phones and cancer; red meat and cancer; genetically modified food and… well, just the very thought of it. These and many other lesser scares add up to a profound fear of technology, material comfort and the trappings of modern life in general.

What the various science-fiction scenarios, pandemic fears and conspiracy theories over the past 10 years have had in common is that they have all been informed by, crystallised and propelled a profound sense of vulnerability. We are increasingly told that we are powerless in the face of invisible forces over which we have little control. Worse still, any attempt to tame the natural world and to resolve informally any potential tensions in everyday, human interactions is seen as irresponsible and hubristic.

Human agency has been diminished, framed as the culprit in a wave of destabilising events, whether it’s developments in technology being blamed for messing up information storages, large-scale agriculture being seen as leading to diseases like avian flu, or modernity itself leading only to obesity, unhappiness and natural disasters.

In this context it might be naïve to look to the end of the Noughties as the end of the era of panics. But to paraphrase an old saying, what thankfully didn’t kill humanity off in the Noughties will hopefully make us more resilient from 2010.

Nathalie Rothschild is commissioning editor of spiked.

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Topics Politics


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