The politics of fear is nothing to be sneezed at.
By Ian Jarrett
Wednesday, 26th October 2005
This was the week when the WHO was asked WHY by the WTO and Ian Jarrett wonders WHAT this bird flu business all about.

The World Tourism Organisation wants help from the World Health Organisation to deter scaremongering about an avian flu pandemic.

WTO Secretary-General Francesco Frangialli fears international travel will be the first economic sector to be hit if people begin to cancel holidays because of concerns about visiting certain destinations.

Ever-ready Australia has contingency plans to lock up to 500 people in aircraft hangars if they arrive from overseas during a major avian flu outbreak. Imagine telling the folks back home that instead of seeing the Reef, the Rock and the Opera House you spent two weeks inside a Qantas hangar at Sydney Airport.

I have sympathy with the WTO becomes it appears that talk of a lethal bird flu strain killing millions across the globe has reached pandemic proportions, even though I believe there is still no single example of the disease passing from one human being to another.

Those who have died from the most virulent strain of avian flu have been people with extremely close contact to birds – including owners of Thai fighting cocks.

The unease I feel with the current alarm over a flu pandemic is that while the media is once again being led into the dock, it is scientists and politicians who are raising the level of alarm.

Scientists rarely miss an opportunity to step away from their microscopes and appear before a TV camera. This week has been no exception as one boffin after another has stepped forward to tell us that even if we developed a vaccine to counter the flu, there wouldn't be enough to go round.

(This could be a good after-dinner topic? Which 10 people would you want to receive the vaccine; and which 10 people would you NOT want to receive it).

Writing in London's Daily Telegraph, Boris Johnston recalls that during Britain's mad cow crisis (Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease), there were scientists at that time "who were going on the telly and warning us that it would be necessary to construct new hospices on every street corner, such would be the ubiquity of Variant CJD.

"They said the dead would run into hundreds of thousands. So we panicked; the media panicked; the Government panicked, and soon half a million cows had been slaughtered and burnt."

Johnson said confirmed cases of vCJD in the last 15 years were 157, "and the incidence is tailing off".

I get the feeling that politicians enjoy frightening the masses. It helps to keep them in power. There's nothing a leader likes better than to tell the electorate that in a crisis it's safer to stick with those you know and trust.

Australian PM John Howard played the terrorism card successfully at the last federal election, warning Australians to be "alert but not alarmed". "You can trust us to protect you," was the underlying message.

Now Howard's at it again, looking serious and statesman-like, telling us that in the event of avian flu we should "be prepared, not panic"

Let's hope the Aussie PM is prepared – just in case he gets locked up with 499 others in an aircraft hangar on his way back from an APEC summit.

IAN JARRETT is based in Fremantle, Western Australia from where he travels frequently in Asia on assignments for travel magazines.

He is a member of the BamBoo Alliance, a group of leading travel writers in the region. He can be contacted at ianjarrett@mac.com
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