Whilst I have no wish to denigrate the sense of loss the families of the 150 or so people who have died in Mexico must be feeling, I suspect that the reporting of the supposed Swine Flu pandemic is more hysterical by far than it needs to be and may in fact cause more problems than it solves. We are conditioned to respond to such hysterical outpourings as if we are living a disaster movie, as reports of Mexico City coming to a standstill prove. But this sort of fear is nothing new.
Bear in mind that there was a swine flu pandemic frenzy in America 33 years ago. In February 1976, it was widely feared and hysterically reported that swine flu would sweep America. Instantly, the US went into vaccine overdrive, pushing the drug companies to create a panacea for the expected waves of death and misery. The US government pushed through $135 million to create the vaccine and, in the face of European scepticism, began a programme of inoculation in June of the same year.
By October, the vaccine had apparently killed more people than the swine flu and the US government was forced to stop production. Over the next three years they were forced to pay out billions of dollars in compensation and the costs of safely destroying the vaccine.
The lesson to be learned here is that hysteria is not a good basis on which to push through a barely tested drug – given time, a vaccine could be found, but if it is rushed through on the basis of the media whipping up a storm of fear, there is every chance that more lives will be lost. It’s time to start preparing a preventative, certainly – but not to allow a partially-tested cure out onto the market.
The trouble is that, now, the media is assisted by the internet, and fear can spread far more quickly and virally than it could in 1976. This is a crucial difference. Bad news has always sold better than good news, but with sites like Twitter pushing out news almost as fast as thought, the possibilities for mass panic are ever more nebulous and far-reaching. And any snake oil medicine man out there wanting to push flour and tar water cures onto a fearful populace is able to do so with much more speed and impunity.
At what point, then, is the media going to have to consider some sort of censorship to avoid mass panic? They’re currently feasting on the story, but they need to stop and consider the ramifications of this unchecked feasting – if it leads to deaths from untested vaccines, there’ll be hell to pay, especially if the pandemic doesn’t pan out, as happened in 1976.
It’s not only the media who need to stop and think before allowing fear to wash away reason. We all need to stop and think; wasn’t a bird flu pandemic due to wipe us all out a couple of years ago? Weren’t there supposed to be Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq? What became of the doom-laden financial downturn the papers reported on last October? OK, things are pretty damned tough financially at the moment, but they’re not as bad as October’s fearful reports would have had us believe.
I’m not suggesting that we shouldn’t be careful about Swine Flu; it just strikes me that the biggest pandemic at the moment is media hysteria – which is turning out to be considerably more contagious than the virus they’re reporting on. The speed of web-based media extensions like Twitter only plays into the powerful hands of PR people with dark ambitions. This isn’t a disaster movie, not yet, and I hope it won’t get that bad, but there needs to be a pause for breath before we charge headlong into border controls and lockdowns to prevent a pandemic that may never happen.
The best form of censorship is self-censorship in these circumstances – we should think before we tweet. It’s either that or hiding in our attics with paper bags over our heads, sending out evermore hysterical Twitter messages warning neighbours to keep away.
Bearing all this in mind, I intend to undertake what many could see as the most dangerous stunt in the world. It’s not the bullet catch, nor is it the water chamber escape or the buried alive illusion. The real mind-bending stunt of the day is risking life and limb by licking a Mexican piglet. I’ve licked a pig before, as the picture proves. I’m happy to do it again.
This could, if the hype is to be believed, actually be more dangerous than having 900 pounds of concrete broken off my chest with a sledge hammer while lying on a bed of nails and should not be tried at home, as much as anything because it’s hard to get hold of Mexican pigs.
I will perform the stunt – for anyone who wants proof that there’s no point in being scared by rumours of a pandemic, only by the pandemic itself – on one condition; they have to prove to me that they have purchased a copy of my book The Fame Formula: How Hollywood’s Fixers, Fakers and Star Makers Created the Celebrity Industry (out now in paperback). If this strikes you as a scam, just remember; there are far worse scams to be pulled, by people far less scrupulous than myself, if you allow fear of a flu pandemic which may never come to fruition to rule your life.