Financial pandemic

During the most dramatic paroxysms of the banking sector last autumn, they kept saying, in the media, that this was the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. But I think a lot of people (like me, initially) heard that as: the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.

And the thing is, they were using the terminology correctly. It was a very serious crisis of the financial system — that is, a banking crisis. And it was the worst one since the Depression. But it was not then and is still not (yet) the worst economic crisis since the Depression. So, assuming I was not the only one who misunderstood, there was a disconnect between what they were saying and what their audience were hearing.


I think the same thing is going on with the swine flu. The WHO have just raised the alert level to five on their scaring-the-shit-out-of-everyone scale, meaning that they fear a pandemic is ‘imminent’. The trouble is that when I hear the word ‘pandemic’ I think ‘Spanish Flu!’ or indeed ‘Black Death!!’. Death and devastation on a vast scale. Tens of millions dead.

Whereas what the WHO means by pandemic is something like ‘international outbreak of serious infectious disease’. A major public health event, but not necessarily with quite the overtones of The End Of Days. For example, I was surprised to learn that there have been two serious flu pandemics since 1918 — the Asian flu in 1957-8 and the Hong Kong flu in 1968-9. They both killed about a million people, so I don’t want to downplay them too much, but it’s not exactly the Black Death. Apparently something like 34,000 die from flu in the US in a normal year, and the Hong Kong flu killed about 34,000, so it was effectively an extra flu season.


Wolf flu

The swine flu outbreak had me thinking: presumably the very nature of infectious diseases means that, if you want to beat them, you have to act fast and take large-scale measures. You have to act, every time, as though this one is The Big One because if it is, then time is of the essence.

But of course it means the authorities are open to accusations of needless alarmism and crying wolf. This is the third ‘pandemic’ this decade, after SARS and bird flu; how many times can we have these alerts before people stop taking them seriously?

Although as long as governments keep taking them seriously, perhaps it would be no bad thing if the media treated them more as routine news stories and less like the first horseman of the apocalypse had just appeared.

I’m assuming, btw, that the swine flu is not going to be the pandemic that kills us all. I hope I’m not tempting fate.

» The photo is ‘Padrecito Posero’, © Eneas De Troya and used under a CC attribution licence.