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Media panic worse than any pig flu

While any death should be seen as a tragedy I am finding the media panic surrounding the swine flu to be maddening. Right now the swine flu appears to have a kill rate that is less than the normal flu. The threat of it mutating into a mass-killing strain is the same threat of the normal flu to turn into a mass-killing strain. People need a little perspective on this so-called global threat.

I would love to see malaria and tuberculosis treated with the same horror. I wish to see the mass amount of global resources poured into finding better treatment and to enable people to access available treatment. And, for sure, much of this is happening behind the scenes and the World Health Organisation is running multiple programmes in these areas. Despite multiple programmes, here are their figures from a few years ago:

• At the end of 2004, about 3,2-billion people lived in areas at risk of malaria transmission in 107 countries and territories.
• Between 350 and 500-million clinical episodes of malaria occur every year.
• At least one million deaths occur every year due to malaria.
• About 60% of the cases of malaria worldwide and more than 80% of the malaria deaths worldwide occur in Africa south of the Sahara.

I wish to point out the one million people who will die each year from malaria. The flu will never kill that many people. It is attracting such attention because it is not confined to poor nations. If we are truly becoming a global village then we need to treat these situations as threats to all of us.

“Any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee … ” said the English poet, John Donne. Such an attitude needs to be instilled in ourselves, our children and in our media. The sad disparity in responses to different diseases continues the global splits of us/them, same/other distinctions that permeate national discourses. Thus the rich nations panic about a flu and spend billions while real threats to live are given less resources than needed.

The swine flu may be scary as it is easily transmitted, but a sense of perspective is sorely needed. Mothers keep their children from school, people wear surgeon’s masks on the airplane, and hospital waiting rooms are clogged with otherwise healthy people scared to death over the slightest sniffle. It will probable kill less than the normal flu soon to circulate the globe, but with far less fanfare. This is clearly a media panic not based on fact, science or any sort of knowledge.

A media panic is also often referred to as a media moral panic and generally is seen as occurring when a “condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests” (Cohen, 1972). It is most often used to explain the over-reaction of the media to a perceived problems arising from a defined group of people.

With swine flu it is not quite the same, as the moral dimension is missing — as is the condemnation of groups of people. What is similar is that the media coverage encourages disproportionate responses to the pandemic. What is also comforting (theoretically) is that the volatility of the panic means it will be soon forgotten just like the “bird flu” was. I just wish we could have proportionate responses to disease and social issues.

I would hazard a guess is that the next panic will be the flying pig flu.


Cohen, S. (1973). Folk Devils and Moral Panics


  • Michael Francis

    I have returned to South Africa. I now teach Economic History and Development Studies at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. I am happy to be back after a couple years away. I had been teaching anthropology at a Canadian University, but Africa called and I returned.