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Downing Street’s Ebola panic is a classic case of the politics of fear

Saturday 18 October 2014

Remember Sars? What about bird flu? Here we are again with the latest ‘pandemic’, having our insecurities cynically exploited

Simon Jenkins

The Guardian, Friday 17 October 2014

No one can tell me if Ebola is the worst plague since, variously, Aids, Sars, BSE or the black death. All I hear is that it “might” be. I do not mind being told no one knows. But what do I make of a prime minister who emerges from his Cobra bunker and declares “a very serious threat to the UK”, a US president who says it is “spiralling out of control”, and a World Health Organisation that says it is “the most severe health emergency seen in modern times … a potential threat of an unparalleled human catastrophe”?

We have lost control of the language of proportion. The result is an outbreak of crying-wolf syndrome. David Cameron and his cabinet currently tell me to be scared witless by Ebola, an attack from Isis, a resurgent Russia and global warming (sometimes). In July, the prime minister said we face being “cast back into the dark ages of medicine” because of a new strain of superbugs. This was capped two months later when Stephen Hawking declared that “the God particle could destroy the universe”. In small print it said this was “very unlikely”, but how unlikely is very?

Is this all scientific drivel, or merely abuse of the sacred word “could”? We have no tools for assessing such threats. There is no help from the Office for National Statistics or Office for Budget Responsibility. Tim Harford of the BBC Radio 4 programme More or Less tries to keep his head above the sea of tosh. But the only sane response is total scepticism of the motives of those seeking to make us afraid.

The real threat from Ebola, the subject of agonising coverage from Africa and panic measures from governments, is hard to assess. It has been around since the 1970s. It was eventually contained each time, including in the Democratic Republic of Congo earlier this year. If governments really thought it so terrifying they would issue a temporary ban on air travel which, in the digital age, is almost all non-essential. But when fear is in the air and politicians want to seem in control, who can tell?

The one sure pandemic is panic. In 1997 we were told that bird flu could kill 2 billion people worldwide. In 1999 European Union scientists wailed that the illness BSE/CJD could kill 500,000 people. It peaked at 28 deaths in the UK and is down to two a year. The Sars outbreak of 2003 was asserted by one expert as having “a 25% chance of killing tens of millions”. The press headlined Sars as “a plague worse than Aids”. One Briton possibly died from Sars last year.

The recent flus classed as H1N1 and H5N1 seemed to arrive as regularly as swallows in summer. All were eagerly labelled pandemics by scientists, apparently to unlock millions of pounds in government drugs purchases. In 2006, bird flu was declared “the first pandemic of the 21st century” (others not having come up to scratch). The WHO, penetrated by big pharma advisers, issued a statement that “one in four Britons could die”. They did not.

By 2009, flu scares were on autopilot. “This could really explode,” a BBC reporter wailed of the latest arrival. “It is here,” cried the London Evening Standard, with fear “spreading like a Mexican wave”. The Department of Health’s Sir Liam Donaldson famously declared that “65,000 could die”. Drugs companies such as Roche and GSK were showered with gold, with a staggering $2bn eventually being spent worldwide on Tamiflu. One of the few official bodies to call the scaremongering to account, the Council of Europe, called the hyping of the 2009 pandemic “one of the great medical scandals of the century”.

Health scares are classics of the politics of fear. After a while they lose all force, except to distort medical priorities. Hundreds died of hospital-caught infections while ministers panicked over bird flu. But what are we to do? As with fear of terrorism, crime, poverty or common illness, we have to rely on authority to advise and warn us. When authority has a vested interest in alarmism, anarchy reigns. We are at the mercy of the lobbyist, the spin doctor and the headline writer.

The lunacies of medical catastrophism are one thing. The political exploitation of personal insecurity is more serious. We can take an aspirin to ward off mad science disease but we cannot altogether dismiss a minister who claims to know our lives and livelihoods are at risk. I expect the police to guard me from danger without constantly telling me what the danger is. Why do politicians behave otherwise?

The political scientist Louise Richardson wrote in What Terrorists Want that it is precisely what western politicians seem happiest to give them: they want to make us fear them. “By declaring war on terror,” she says, “far from denying al-Qaida its objectives we are conceding its objectives. That is why a war on terror can never be won.” It is a terminological admission of defeat.

Fear is the dumbing down of politics. After 9/11, Americans were made very afraid of planes. They duly took to their cars and an extra 1,500 died as a result. Privately promoted catastrophe has always had a good press. Bookshops are crammed with titles such as The Long Emergency, The Population Bomb, Our Final Hour. The fact that Aids, predicted to slash by a third Africa’s population, has simply not done so, will no more dent the appeal of Armageddon than will the wilder claims of climate changers. The political psychologist Philip Tetlock famously gathered 28,000 predictions from scientists and other experts, then waited and found they were no better than random guesses.

Perhaps the answer is to take a leaf from the Office for Budget Responsibility. The government should appoint a commission for the assessment of panics. Its job would be to test alarmist announcements against stringent statistical probability. If a budget can be independently audited and crime figures independently scrutinised, why not Downing Street scaremongering?

What is the real risk of thousands dying of flu or being blown up by terrorists? Should we be very scared, seriously scared or scared out of our minds? What force should these words convey to the body politic?

My commission would test for the abuse of words such as “could”, “might”, “up to”, as in “Isis terrorism could threaten up to a thousand lives”, or “superbugs could take us back to the dark ages”. The new press regulator, Ipso, would do likewise for that equal offender, the media. Penalties would be harsh, such as a year’s course in regression analysis and probability theory.

A democracy must know what it should fear. Perhaps young people who did not know the cold war threat of nuclear annihilation are more susceptible to the phoney scaremongering of today.

Either way, it lays them open to lobbyists and cynics. Freedom from fear is a human right. We pay politicians to guard us from terror by not terrifying us.

See online: Downing Street’s Ebola panic is a classic case of the politics of fear