Times of fear
Beware. This newspaper that you are reading is a carrier of the most infectious and contagious, as well as the oldest, disease known to humankind: fear. Thanks to the so-called swine flu — now renamed H1N1 by the World Health Organisation (WHO) — fear is having a field day. Newspaper and television headlines blazon the dire prognosis: the world could be facing the gravest health threat ever since the influenza epidemic of 1918-19 which claimed over 50 million lives, more than the death toll of both World Wars combined. With 13 countries — from Mexico and the US to Switzerland and New Zealand — having reported cases of the disease, WHO has raised the global health alert to a phase five level, just one short of a pandemic. The Mexican government has virtually shut the entire country down for five days in a bid to stem the spread of the disease.
It’s enough to scare the living daylights out of anyone. And even if H1N1 blows over with little or no real damage done, as happened in the case of the almostequally dreaded SARS, the media is full of ancillary stories of the financial harm it’s doing to an already ailing global economy. In other words, even if H1N1 doesn’t get you directly, it’ll get you indirectly, through your bank account. Or rather, your lack of it.
If all that still doesn’t scare you, don’t worry. There’s even more fearful news. Taliban militants in Pakistan could seize control of that country’s nuclear weapons with catastrophic consequences, not just for the subcontinent but for the whole world. And that’s so scary that for a moment we forget to be scared by H1N1, or the global economy.
Fear — of anything, of disease, death, destruction, financial ruin — is the biggest, oldest and most self-sustaining epidemic of them all. There is a popular conception that the media create this fear and pander to it to propagate themselves on the basis of the dictum that bad news sells and worse news sells even better. This is not true. While the H1N1 health scare is indeed being exploited on the internet by peddlers of quack medications claiming to cure everything from impotence to baldness, mainstream media by and large have long realised that while bad news certainly can sell more copies of a newspaper or attract larger viewership of a news channel for a while, scare-mongering is a losing proposition in the long run. This is because those who cry ‘Wolf !’ too loudly and too often are subject to the law of not only diminishing credibility but also — and more importantly — diminishing advertising revenues. Advertisers don’t like their products to be associated in the public mind with doom and gloom. It’s bad for business.
Fear doesn’t sell because of the media; fear sells despite the media. Fear sells because all of us want to buy it. We are programmed to do so, not by media-generated paranoia but through millions of years of evolution, which favoured the survival of those of our proto-human ancestors who were swiftest in their flight-or-fight response from any real or anticipated threat. Fear is genetically encoded into us as the key to survival and the continuation of the species; evolution has always selected in favour of the fearful, those who had the sharpest antennae to sense danger and avoid it.
That said, the fear instinct does make us vulnerable to political chauvinism (Scared of Pak nukes? Let’s bomb them before they can bomb us!), religious hocus-pocus (Sign up for the True Faith and make H1N1 your passport to Heaven!) and pseudo-medical mumbojumbo (Take Brand X Snake Oil and protect yourself from all ailments, from rhinitis to recession!). We need to choose our fears as carefully as we choose our enemies. In fact, our choice of fear determines who our enemy is: Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, or H1N1. Or both. Or neither, but our fearful dependence on fear itself.