Five years ago, I was wondering how our Indian summer of prosperity would end.
We had been basking in the long Edwardian glow of low prices, cheap labour, domestic servants, prosperity and growth. It didn’t actually occur to any of us at the time that a credit crunch would do the trick; a collapse of confidence in our debt-repaying abilities. That was beyond imagining. No, it was going to be something more obvious.
War was the most likely, if you listened to those who relied on historical cycles. In 1714 the western world had fought itself to a standstill. Add in 1814 and 1914, and there were the grounds for a Nostradamus-style paranoia. What would be our equivalent of World War One?
Or maybe climate change would have caught up with us, to sweep us away in millennial winds (and maybe it yet will). Or again, maybe disease. The bugs would exert themselves and mutate into something we couldn’t catch up with.
War, disease, the wrath of Gaia. “For we’ve lived so well, so long,” as the singer sang it. We’d had a fabulous 50 years, and now we’d have to pay.
Now, here we are again. Eighty people have got a nasty flu and died in Mexico. May they rest in peace. But 200,000 of us die every day in the world, so the Mexican victims aren’t exactly objects of rational fear. But the sentence that has been picked up and spun round the world says: “The World Health Organisation has warned that the [swine flu] virus has the potential to become a pandemic”.
- A d v e r t i s e m e n t
It sounds to us in the laity a bit like the Terror Level rating the Government puts out so that it can say, “We did warn you,” if perchance a bombing takes place.
But it has made front pages all round the world. It is a pandemic of headlines. And the director of the World Influenza Centre has helped by saying of the outbreak and its future: “It’s difficult to look on the bright side.”
Actually, it is not at all difficult, with a little insensitivity. The bright side is that almost no one has been affected, there have been almost no deaths, we haven’t had a major outbreak of flu for 40 years, there has been no swine flu in the UK for a decade, and also no one in Britain died of bird flu.
It may well be true that, virally speaking, H1 swine flu is “already worse than H5”. But that H5N1 bird flu was hardly worth worrying us with at all. According to the World Health Organisation, 257 people have died of it in the last seven years, while the best part of a billion others have died of non-bird flu related causes.