A dead swan was recently found about a mile from our house in a nearby lake. The poor creature had the misfortune, first, of dying and, second, of dying at the same time as another swan in Fife, in Scotland, several hundred miles away. The swan in Fife died of bird flu. So, suddenly, the swan down the road from our house found itself the posthumous centre of attention as tests ensued. The situation, however, proved an anticlimax when the swan was found to have died of natural causes. This was cold comfort to the swan and, no doubt, bad news for media people, who were getting excited about the furore. Needless to say, it was a relief for people across the island of Ireland.
But what was interesting about this incident was its ability to conjure up fear in an instant. If I am honest, I was also alarmed at my own rather selfish and out-of-proportion reaction. Firstly, I had concerns about whether our child would be safe if we went for a walk down by the river. Secondly, I envisaged another foot-and-mouth-style slaughter of all local birds and felt for the poor creatures, which would, surely, meet their end if bird flu was confirmed. And, finally, I found some space to spare a thought for the poultry farmers and the potential impact on their livelihood. Sadly, I think my reaction is not too dissimilar to many. It seems as if each new global fear is immediately internalised and individualised. In short, can I get it? Am I and my family safe? Immediately after the discovery of the dead swan in Fife, I heard people saying that they would no longer eat poultry, despite the media making it unequivocally clear that you cannot get bird flu this way, not to mention the fact that swan is hardly a staple food. This points to a paradox. There is increasing information from the media about issues such as bird flu, yet, at the same time, individuals continue to have unfounded fears. Why is this the case? One way to look at this is from the perspective of the information that is imparted. To be fair to the media in the UK and Ireland, both have attempted to run with the ‘don’t panic’ story about bird flu. Tony Blair and various scientists have been liberally quoted as saying the disease is not a threat to humans. Yet, at the same time, the media cannot resist highlighting the 100 human fatalities across the globe with as much of sensationalism as possible. They also take any opportunity to show photos of crowded chicken coops in Asian and African markets. Such images shown in a largely Western society invariably evoke stereotypical perceptions of foreigners as somehow dirty and primitive, feeding fears of ‘the other’ as the source of infectious disease. Another way to look at unrealistic fears like contracting bird flu in leafy suburbia, which you are as unlikely as getting as winning the lottery twice in one weekend, is that such fears are the luxury of those who are comfortable and do not have that much to worry about. Clearly, the starving villagers from Jos, in Nigeria, who were recently arrested for exhuming flu-infected and culled birds to eat had a very different hierarchy of concern.
In the final instance, the whole bird-flu issue probably teaches us more about ourselves than about risk. We cannot resist seeing the world from our own tiny vantage point. Those who are safest in the world continue to thrive on myths of external threats, such as criminals, foreigners, terrorists, strangers and disease, while the poor rifle through a pile of dead poultry looking for food, infected or not. So, why did the chicken cross the road? Hopefully, to help us open our eyes.
Brandon Hamber writes the column "Look South": an analysis of trends in global political, social and cultural life and its relevance to South Africa on Polity. Copyright Brandon Hamber, February 2006. "Look South" Column published on Polity on 28 April 2006.