Swine flu, recession, climate and the twin perils of panic and complacency

Swine flu – what happened to it? Two to three weeks of seeming panic and suddenly silence descends. Panic over, then, but is that the same as saying problem over? And what does our news media’s cock-eyed treatment of swine flu tell us about what we can expect on other issues as serious and various as the economy, global warming, crime rates or risk of famine in parts of Africa? 

I’m troubled by this question partly because I am, like everybody else, a consumer of the warnings and the screaming headlines, but partly because I also write about serious subjects that involve extreme risks for large numbers of people – subjects such as violent conflict, the global economy, climate change and the dangerous links between them. The reason I write about these issues is because I am hopeful that people will think about them and begin to work out and to support constructive ways of responding to the risks so that the worst never comes to pass. For this, it seems to me, we need calmly to confront the worst possibilities and calmly figure out how to go about managing and mitigating the risks.

But the way that most of the news media handle questions in which great risks and important degrees of uncertainty are combined is consistently counter-productive for calm reflection and decision. Reports go for impact, drama, shock and imminent catastrophe; people with points to make play to those demands and spin their prognoses towards the most dramatic and awful end of a range of possibilities; interviewers demand to know why the problem hasn’t been solved instantly; opposition politicians attack governments for leaving people in uncertainty; and governments deal in fake certainties and all too often take hasty, ill-thought decisions.

A recent headline on one of London’s free newspapers carried an expert’s assessment that 94,000 Londoners could die from swine flu. Schools closed when there was a suspected case of the illness, British holidaymakers in Cancun, Mexico cut short their stay and came home (risking who knows what infections on the flight home), the World Health Organisation upped its crisis rating and the “global pandemic” headlines rolled out. On the TV, ads warned us not to shake hands with strangers while programmes discussed which was the best mask to buy (NB if the idea is to stop yourself being infected, the answer was that none of them was the best one – they’re all useless for self-protection, though some might well make it less likely you would pass the infection on). There were calmer voices offering more reassuring advice about simply maintaining regular standards of hygiene but they tended to get drowned out.

Then came this weekend, when it all seems to have stopped. Apparently the virus is a fairly mild strain. It does not seem at the moment as if the virulence or lethality of swine flu marks it out as worse than other types of flu that assail us every winter. A 12 year old girl who came down with it remarked afterwards that it felt a bit like a cold and she was glad she took a day off school. And now it seems there is pretty much silence on the topic. Panic over, then what? – sneeze complacently over each other to our hearts’ content?

Taken as a whole, the mass media’s concerned audience has seen its newspapers, radio and TV programmes behaving like Corporal Jones from the BBC comedy series Dad’s Army, set in wartime Britain among the Home Guard of evening and weekend soldiers. Corporal Jones was a veteran of wars long gone who responded to the slightest sign of trouble by shouting to everybody, “Don’t Panic! Don’t panic!”

He was a figure of fun, of course but how many more times do we watch the media bounce up and down issuing instructions to all and sundry about how to fend off some awful disaster before we conclude that every such warning is rubbish? Bird flu turned out to be way less of a threat than it was first painted, now it looks as if swine flu might be the same: what happens next time? And not just over possible pandemics but over other serious risks as well?

It seems that the lurch from panic-stricken headlines to complacent silence makes these two poles dominate possible modes of reacting to major problems. Between them, there is much less space than is necessary for considered reflection.

The strange thing is that panic and complacency are opposites yet are both related and mutually reinforcing. Both can push a person into inaction in the face of danger – in the one case because the danger is not seen till it is too late, and in the other because its dimensions and terror are exaggerated. If you find that panic is not justified, you are likely to swing to complacency and if you discover you have been complacent too long, panic is a likely response. And both of them are sneaky: if I say we have to guard against complacency (in an election, for example), you know I’m pretty confident about our chances, and if I tell you not to panic, you’re quite likely to think there must be something to be pretty worried about.

It is increasingly clear that we are very ill-served by the way our news and media culture emphases swift certainty both in news reports and in what is assumed to be the appropriate response of governments and international authorities to major problems. It’s an approach that sounds so hard-nosed but it is deeply unrealistic in a world in which much is uncertain and unclear.

As I have argued in several recent posts, nobody knows how long or deep the economic downturn is going to be. It depends on a large number of inter-acting factors, including the response of governments and the mood of investors, consumers and financiers worldwide. Similarly, while the science of global warming and climate change is clarifying and gaining certainty year by year, there is still much that is unknown and almost certainly much that is unknowable in advance about the detailed effects and impacts.

In these circumstances, the mature reaction does not include shrieking at governments to solve the problem. Nor, from politicians, does a mature response consist either of scoring points off each other or of over-claiming for the success of the policy initiatives they are just about to introduce. We need to recognise that when working amid uncertainty, what is needed is the flexibility to adjust policy as we go along. At the moment we demand too much certainty and decisiveness from those we elect to power. The more we recognise complexity, the better we will able to discuss risk, and the less we will lurch from complacency to panic. And the more achieve that calm and that capacity to reflect, the more mature our political culture will be.

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