Panic and prejudice

In their enthusiasm to find a new story to take our minds off all that nasty business in Iraq, the bourgeois media fixated on Sars (severe acute respiratory syndrome). As of May 6, the World Health Organisation has announced a total of 6,727 cases worldwide, spread across 32 countries and resulting in 478 deaths. Tragic as this loss of life is, it is important to note that the numbers involved are relatively small. Furthermore, the WHO has estimated that four percent of cases will prove fatal, and that 90% of those infected will recover within a week. Dr David Heymann, executive director for communicable diseases at the WHO, has stated that the outbreaks appear to be under control, with mortality and morbidity rates on the decline. Despite this, Sars became the focus of fear and panic. It is necessary to ask whether this is something to be genuinely concerned about, or if it is yet another case of a panic unnecessarily and irresponsibly engendered by the media. At present no one knows very much about Sars. Consequently, most of what is being reported is conjecture. It appears likely that it is transmitted by water droplets in a similar manner to influenza - indeed Sars shares the symptoms of high fever, headache, sore throat and a cough - but it seems to be less transmissible than flu. This has led to speculation that Sars is a mutated virus. Currently the consensus is that it is a form of the Corona virus, which causes the common cold. Although scientists have yet to develop a specific treatment for Sars, a 'cocktail' of antibiotics and antivirals seems to be effective. In essence then, Sars is a virulent strain of the kind of virus that we all get from time to time. The morbidity rate is low, with few cases having been identified, and the mortality rate is also relatively low. Despite this the media has swooped like carrion on pictures of people in China wearing facemasks, vicariously reporting horror stories of how people are afraid to use door handles and shake hands. Yet all evidence suggests that facemasks are woefully ineffective at preventing the spread of bacteria, and that the only danger of contracting the virus by touch is the possibility that if someone sneezes or coughs, then infectious water droplets may linger on objects and people. It is apposite to compare the media coverage of Sars with how the Aids virus was presented in the 1980s. When Aids was first reported there was widespread panic. All that was known was that it was potentially deadly; a cure had not been found; and it could become an epidemic, spreading throughout the population. Aids was a major story for the media, but they were faced with the problem that no one knew very much about it. The bourgeois press has never let an absence of facts stand in the way of a good story. Accordingly, various 'experts' were interviewed. Some responsible professionals. Others were mere pundits. Either way, the media dwelt on the most salacious speculations. Accordingly on the BBC's nine o'clock news it was announced that, "Up to 70,000 in England and Wales will die of Aids in the next four years ..." and "... by the end of the [20th] century there won't be one family that isn't touched in some way by the disease". These were unfounded exaggerations that provoked panic and prejudice. A consequence of how Aids was reported was an increase in homophobia, as cases were initially concentrated in gay men. Latterly, although gay men are still a high-risk group, campaigns to raise awareness have avoided the taboo issue of gay sex. Twenty years on, the initial panic has proved to be an exaggeration. There is still much that is not known about Aids, and it has become an epidemic of global proportions, and there is still considerable stigma attached to the condition. But more is known about how the virus is communicated, and it is no longer the taboo that it once was. However, the media dealt with the issue in an irresponsible and counterproductive way. Furthermore, populist politicians based their responses on the media-induced panic rather than on hard scientific facts. Although Aids is one of the gravest problems that the world faces, it now receives less attention, and less funding for research. Last week the Tories called for Sars to be categorised as a notifiable disease, enabling officials to forcibly quarantine people, and health secretary Allan Milburn announced that airline passengers will be screened. This is a virus that has an incubation period of 10 days, thereby making screening ineffectual. In the event that the Tory proposal for enforced quarantining is enacted, doubtless it will be foreigners, particularly the vilified groups of asylum-seekers and immigrants, that are targeted, thereby providing yet another means of circumventing civil liberties. Sars is undoubtedly a potentially fatal disease, which could decimate regions with poor healthcare provision. Yet the response of the media and politicians illustrates the flaws inherent in capitalism. In their insatiable desire for sensationalism, the media have orchestrated a furore based on little evidence. As with Aids, politicians are responding to the commotion engendered by journalists rather than to legitimate concerns for people's health. We are told that in countries with poor healthcare the disease may prove devastating, and yet attention is not focused on areas where infrastructure is ineffective. Media attention is instead on the prospects of Sars arriving in Britain, and on the fleeting travel ban on Toronto, Canada. Incidentally the Canadian establishment's response was to bemoan the loss of revenue from tourism - hardly fitting when masses of people's lives were supposed to be at stake. In the paranoid and insular US, conspiracy theorists are speculating that Sars may be a biological weapon unleashed by that arch-villain Saddam Hussein in an act of revenge against the 'land of the free'. If this preposterous explanation were the case, the fact that it has yet to affect the US confirms that the CIA taught the Ba'athists how to target weapons! Sars may yet prove to be a pandemic of global proportions, but at present it is not. It is revealing that April 25 was the day when the WHO and Unicef released a report revealing that 3,000 children in Africa die of malaria every day. The report detailed how, with sufficient resources, the threat may be obviated. Yet this avoidable and perennial tragedy was conspicuously absent from the British media. The correct response to the emergence of a new and deadly virus should be for healthcare professionals to identify an effective and proportionate means of combating it, in the interests of all those at risk. Jeremy Butler