September 27, 2005


Forget SARS, West Nile, Ebola and avian flu. The real epidemic is fear.: We keep bracing ourselves for one cataclysmic threat after another. Our perceived lack of safety has become an obsession, (LIANNE GEORGE, 9/29/05, MacLean's)

For almost a decade, North Americans have been bracing for one cataclysmic threat after another -- superbugs, bioterrorist attacks, apocalyptic plagues. There have been real threats (Y2K, West Nile, mad cow, SARS, anthrax), but in each case, the amount of paranoia surrounding the threat has been exponentially larger than the threat itself.

So fear has become the epidemic -- and safety, or our perceived lack of it, an obsession. Perhaps what's most unsettling is that the definition of what it means to be safe keeps changing. Six years ago, being safe meant building a subterranean bunker and stocking up on bottled water and duct tape in the event the Y2K bug should destroy the world's computers and bring about global anarchy. More recently, safety has meant slathering oneself with DEET to ward off West Nile-infected mosquitoes; swearing off burgers, those purveyors of mad cow disease; donning paper masks on subways to avoid contracting SARS; and stocking up on Cipro, on the off chance some maniac should unleash anthrax in our midst.

This minute, it means having an ample supply of Tamiflu. Experts are saying that when -- not if -- an outbreak occurs, there will be a critical global shortage of the drug. Governments and multinational corporations are frantically stockpiling it. Ordinary North Americans and Europeans, fearing there won't be enough left for them and theirs at the crucial moment -- and lacking faith in public institutions to protect them -- have taken to creating survivalist flu blogs and building their own anticipatory stashes.

For Fields, who sells Tamiflu prescription-free, it's meant filling orders, 10 per cent of which are coming from Canadians, at a rate of 13,000 boxes (or US$877,500 worth) per week. "It's unbelievable," he says. "Most people buy it for their whole family. Consumers, doctors, professionals -- anyone, you name it." In his office, he's set aside about 80 boxes for personal use since, rumour has it, one course might not be enough. "Better safe than sorry."

There's no denying that avian flu is genuinely scary. As the latest end-of-days hypothetical, the virus has all the makings of a media blockbuster. It's strange and new and it can mutate quickly into unpredictable, ever-more-threatening forms. Thanks to migratory birds and global travellers, it has the potential to blanket the world quickly. Worst of all, there is no known vaccine for the virus, which accompanies a horrifying list of symptoms including a high fever, serious respiratory complications, extreme body aches, multiple organ failure and often death in 72 hours or less.

Eight years ago, the H5N1 strain infected its first 18 people in Hong Kong, six of whom died. This was the first time the virus was found to have been transmitted directly from bird to human. Later, it resurfaced in Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia, resulting in more human deaths and the destruction of millions of chickens. Scientists have been debating ever since the likelihood that it will mutate into a form that is readily transmittable between humans -- a scenario that would produce one of the most deadly viruses humanity has ever seen. Flu epidemics operate in cycles, experts say, and we're well overdue for the next one. In the U.S., scientists are working on developing a preventative vaccine, but since no one can predict what a mutated virus would look like, no surefire vaccine can be developed until an outbreak actually occurs. London-based virologist John Oxford, one of the world's leading flu experts, has likened it to "a tsunami rushing toward us."

For now, though, it all remains hypothetical. In his new book, The Politics of Fear, U.K. sociologist Frank Furedi suggests that the more secure a society is -- in terms of health, wealth and political stability -- the more likely it is to fixate on theoretical menaces. In turn, the more obsessed we become with keeping safe, "the more insecure we become," he says, "because safety becomes this elusive quest you never achieve. Even if you never leave the house, you can always slip in the bathtub."

In life, there is much to fear (even fear itself!), and a certain amount of paranoia is necessary for survival since it compels us to implement reasonable precautions, like condoms and bicycle helmets. But what Furedi is describing is a culture plagued by free-floating anxiety, exacerbated by the dramatic and devastating news events of our time: tsunamis, hurricanes, 9/11. It's not that we're more afraid now than we used to be; it's that the things we fear are less tangible, and the fear itself more diffuse and promiscuous. It will affix itself to global terrorism or earthquakes one day, killer bees the next. And when people feel a sense of general insecurity, says York University sociology professor Donald Carveth, their natural response is to try to identify the source, to give the enemy a face and a name, and exert whatever measures of control they can over it. "To feel threatened by vague, abstract forces -- that's terrifying," he says. "When you've got an enemy, no matter how powerful he is, once he's been identified, you can get him in the sights of your guns." [...]

Whether people realize it or not, fear also serves a real, practical function -- it mobilizes us and informs our political and consumer decisions in all sorts of ways. (Y2K, for instance, generated $100 billion for the global economy -- a boon for computer nerds everywhere.)

Which is why it should be easy and would be fruitful to whip up global warming and oil shortage scares and then use them to modernize the American energy infrastructure.

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 27, 2005 2:01 PM

The left and hysteria, by Dennis Prager:

Posted by: obc at September 27, 2005 5:37 PM