Apocalypse Not

The news that panicked masses had raced to the National Pandemic Flu Service website and crashed the server was something of a disappointment to the UK Health secretary Andy Burnham.

“If people are made unnecessarily anxious, it makes the lives of NHS professionals, who are already under enormous pressure, far more difficult as people become unduly worried. People should be assured that we have been planning our response to a pandemic for a long time”

Yes, important not to make people anxious. So why is it that Mr Burnham, having planned his response for such a long time, thought it best to use the word PANDEMIC in the name of his website?

My initial reaction to the Great Swine Flu Swindle was one of eye rolling indifference. I thought the urge to glimpse the Coming Apocalypse around every corner was a sad blend of post 9/11 societal trauma and a headline hungry media sprinkled with a Judeo-Christian heritage that expects a day of reckoning at any moment. I presumed that in earlier days people were happier, nobody expected the world to end tomorrow and the men all smoked pipes and wore hats.

But I was wrong.

Humans are prone to panic. It is not a modern phenomena.

In Charles Mackay’s masterly work Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds first published in 1841, the author gives numerous examples that mirror the frenzy surrounding swine flu fears.

In 999 Jerusalem was crammed with pilgrims awaiting the Apocalypse and the re-appearance of the Son of Man. Spurred on by fire breathing Prophets of Doom, most of them had sold their houses and all their possessions before proceeding East although Mackay does not record if there were fears a millenium bug may make all donkeys crash at the same time.

In 1761 London was struck by two minor earthquakes. A soldier in the lifeguards, Bell, became so unhinged by the tremors that he raced around London telling all and sundry the city would be destroyed on the 5th April . The population fled to the outskirts and awaited the disaster. When it failed to materialise, Bell tried a few other prophesies but had blown his big chance and ended up in an asylum.

Leeds was gripped by the Rapture in 1806 when a hen in a nearby village began to lay eggs upon which the words “Christ is coming” could be read. Thousands of citizens (who failed to stop for a moment and wonder why the Messiah would chose a shithole like Leeds to make his big comeback from) visited the village and gazed upon the wondrous eggs. It was only when one of them snuck into the barn to watch the actual laying of an egg was it discovered that the crafty farmer had been inscribing the eggs with God’s message all along.

Easy to laugh at people’s stupidity long after the event right?

But how many of you have not thought about washing your hands having touched someone who sneezed?

Or eyed a backpack discarded on a chair in an airport and wondered for a moment if it was a bomb?

Or looked at the weather and thought “It’s warmer isn’t it? How high above sea level am I again?”

Perhaps there’s a genetic button, one that used to be useful in the days when a pride of sabre-toothed tigers moved into the neighbourhood, which turns us from calm, contented citizens into wild eyed freak out merchants?

Whatever it is, I’m sure Health Secretary Andy Burnham was pretty sure he had his finger on it when he decided to tell his staff “Actually, I quite like the idea of putting the word EPIDEMIC in the title, that should get us some coverage”. Prick.

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3 Responses

  1. […] Complete Guide to the Future Posted on October 21, 2009 by DrThrottling In a previous post, Apocalypse Not, we took a look at the human tendency, throughout history, to believe the four Horsemen of the […]

  2. My reasoning for not getting a flu shot is rebellion against the pharmaceuticals. I am so angry with them I could spit.

    Good piece. Thanks.

  3. […] on February 23, 2010 by Duffster Last August here at Notes, Dr Throttling, in a post entitled Apocalypse Not, referred to the N1H1 flu pandemic as “The Great Swine Flu Swindle”. Recent statistics show […]

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