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Alex Steer writes:

The numbers are changing constantly, but at time of writing, somewhere around 1,800 people (over 1,600 in Mexico) have been infected with the new ‘swine flu’ strain, and 103 people have died. The World Health Organization is coordinating the response, calling it a Public Health Emergency of International Concern.

When reading headlines like these, our thoughts naturally turn to the past and the future: where did this come from, and where will it lead? Our impressions of the past often inform the futures we imagine. We know about the possibilities of pandemic disease, even if few of us have experienced them. In 1919 between 20 and 100 million people worldwide were killed by an influenza pandemic; between 1982 and 2007 more than 2 million died of AIDS.

From flesh-eating viruses to ebola to winter vomiting, we are fascinated by the extremely unpredictable: the small outlying cause that transforms our lives; the sick man on the plane who brings down a city. Modern zombie lore is driven more by our fear of inexplicable pandemic outbreaks than by our belief in voodoo. (If you don’t believe me, watch 28 Days Later, Shaun of the Dead and Dead Set in succession. But don’t do it late at night.)

Pandemics, unlike zombies, have full and active social lives. Even events which seem radically unpredictable have driving forces, many of which don’t need a microscope to be seen. They range from urbanisation to the dense migration networks and transport systems which increase each infectious person’s sphere of influence; from healthcare policies which exclude uninsured low-income workers from care to lumbering organisational structures which make it hard to close roads or supply drugs at short notice. It takes a whole range of forces, not just a few strands of RNA, to make a pandemic.

Our own stories also drive our behaviour. In the hour before this post was written, 24,000 stories containing the word ‘swine flu’ were indexed by Google News. This morning airlines and hotel chains saw steep declines in their share value. Newspapers carried photos of travellers at UK airports wearing masks.

Swine flu may or may not go pandemic, but so far it isn’t even close. Each year 3-4,000 people in the UK die of normal-strain influenza. Our response is out of all proportion to the clinical risk. It reflects our fascination with the pigs-might-fly rareness of new diseases, and our unwillingness to grapple with the other factors that affect how, when, and where people get sick.

The picture of that childhood game of chance, “Pass the Pigs”, was borrowed, with thanks, from Kaptain Kobold on Flickr.

2 thoughts on “When pigs flu: the social life of pandemics

  1. Joe B says:

    Interesting (and timely!) post Alex. What particularly strikes me is the way in which the ‘flu story has been picked up by the commentators and the press who (while doubtless well versed in epidemiology and pandemic management) immediately filtered through their particular political or cultural biases: so the FT tells us that it’s likely to have an impact on the markets (http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/5e14bce6-33bd-11de-83af-00144feabdc0,s01=1.html), Mike Davies (a Californian Marxist Professor – not a phrase you hear every day) tells us it’s all about the power of global capital (http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2009/apr/27/swine-flu-mexico-health) the Green MEP Caroline Lucas tells us it’s about industrialised agriculture (http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2009/apr/28/swine-flu-intensive-farming-caroline-lucas), while The Sun, naturally, has a splendid pun (“Pigs ‘Ear”). By this time tomorrow, I’d imagine that Richard Littlejohn will be blaming the whole thing on Gordon Brown, single mothers and political correctness gone mad.

    The point isn’t whether these perspectives are right or wrong. Rather, given the lack of tangible evidence or information about how (or if) this epidemic develops, what the comments primarily reveal is the biases of the commentators themselves.

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