Why are people scared before an epidemic even happens?—A question inspired by the recent H1N1 outbreak. From a sociological perspective, entities that we rely upon to keep us safe from harm are now advising us that a threat is amongst us which is highly troubling to the human psyche. Aside from of our sense of safety being compromised, the usual suspects—media outlets and major public institutions, are also to blame for contributing to the present swine flu hysteria.
Humans typically like to think of themselves as the precious, unique and special individuals their mothers raised them to believe they are. However, the truth is that humans do not exist in isolated psychological boxes, but rather, their sense of self and wellbeing are dependent on the relationships they have with others.
“We are entirely a product of our social interactions,” explains Dr. Thomas Beamish, Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Davis. “We are a physiological thing in the world, but our understandings, our meaning, our sense of safety and wellbeing, and our sense of imperilment all hinge on our relationships with one another and to institutions in society that we in essence have farmed out our safety to by default."
As society increased in complexity, we’ve inadvertently transferred the responsibility of maintaining our sense of safety to agencies. Public interest agencies such as the CDC and Universities, give us that warm and fuzzy safe feeling by knowing that they are monitoring threats we otherwise wouldn’t have a clue about.
Pathogens, radioactivity and toxins are all invisible agents that scare the crap out of us. When an unexpected fugitive situation emerges, these culprits are particularly scary to us because we cannot detect them ourselves which makes imagining the worst case scenario is easy.
Dr. Beamish elaborates, “The swine flu is entirely mediated because we cannot individually sense it."
You’re ill, is it swine flu? Have you been exposed to the swine flu? Should you be worried about swine flu? You really have no way of knowing any of this unless an expert gives you answers. Therefore, our sense of wellbeing is completely dependent on relational interactions.
“This brings up an issue of sociability… The flu's mitigation, its cure, both physical and psychological, are based on relationships with others. The flu, toxins and radiation all have these relationships. So once you realize the flu is out, it travels through the same networks we rely on for our sense of safety,” explains Dr. Beamish who studies how people perceive and understand risks.
Our informational networks consist of experts, the media and other persons we’re in contact with. What’s interesting is that not only do we rely upon these networks for the flu’s cure, but they’re also the “cause” of the flu itself.
“It’s so incredibly upsetting because it’s part of our social fabric. I’m a relational human being and I need to rely on networks to feel whole yet those networks are where the flu is coming from. It’s a contradiction in terms… So when that specter of a threat comes up, who do I trust? How do I fix this? I can’t know. I have to go to people to find out but people are the source of it,” Dr. Beamish said.
Furthermore, an epidemic is also worrisome to us because there is no clear end in sight.
Dr. Beamish points out that, “Natural disasters have a beginning, middle and an end—a nice story line… It’s coming, we prepare, it comes, and then rebuild. Toxic events and pandemics come in waves. Is this the first wave? The last wave? Where are we in this story? Is it ever going to end? Humans are the most extreme example of suffering; suffering through anticipation. Looking to the future and saying, ‘will something happen down the road?’ is as bad as something actually happening."
A good analogy to this kind of suffering is how some respond to the non-date specific Book of Revelations:
The ancients dreaded the scourges that filled the Book of Revelations. Today we fear disasters like Chernobyl and Bhopal.
Granted, fear of a viral outbreak is more rational, but the associated anticipational dread humans experience is the same.
Keep in mind though, that dreading a potential pandemic is something you could make a lifelong hobby out of considering it's always there. It should also be pointed out that there are numerous other slow to manifest issues among us that we presently fear less even though they are much more serious. "Crescive problems” are gradual problems that are ignored by society until they reach a certain threshold.
While the tragic losses of September 11 have gained full attention and force of the country, less dramatic crescive social problems of immense potential magnitude and impact continue without pause and with little in the way of sustained corrective attention. Acid rain, ozone depletion, global warming, deforestation, desertification, accumulation of nuclear, toxic and solid waste…The threat of an influenza pandemic has managed to cross the social concern threshold into hysteria territory. But why are we so afraid of humanity’s demise via a swine flu as opposed to more definitive potential disasters?
One explanation could be that H1N1 is a new “threat” and we are therefore not yet desensitized to this new stimulus. A comical example of societal desensitization is that initially humans feared the introduction of electricity which over time faded—perhaps swine flu will endure the same fate.
Another factor that provokes our concerns is that H1N1 is killing late teens and twenty-somethings as opposed to just elders and infants. Therefore, scientific rationale and the fact that public health agencies are also alarmed legitimize our concerns.
However, the magnitude of concern one should be presently expressing over the swine flu is definitely worth evaluating. The public primarily obtains news via popular media and although it is well known that the media exaggerates information for the sole sake of generating revenue, the public still carries on as if they are ignorant to this fact.
Aside from the quintessential media hype, public interest institutions themselves are also feeding our hysteria fire. Since September 11th, billions has been spent in order to prepare for bioterrorist and naturally occurring pandemic disasters. This pre-preparedness has resulted in antsy institutional behavior which has further exacerbated the situation at hand.
“It’s a solution looking for problem, not a problem looking for a solution. We typically think, ‘okay, well we have a problem so now look for a solution,’ but we’ve instead created a system of solutions for a scenario that hasn’t happened—we have an enormous apparatus in place that’s ready for the pandemic… literally waiting for a chance,” Beamish explains.
Overall, whether or not an influenza epidemic is actually occurring doesn’t change the fact that a pandemic is a real potential threat to humanity and should therefore not be ignored. However, other variables deviates us from reality which causes hysteria outbreaks. It’s worth examining these underlying hysteria causing variables because hysteria has real social implications including future policy making and economical investments, as well as the attachment of wrongful stigma to certain animals and populations of people. Not to mention dreading a potential pandemic is a waste of our time and is also illogical considering more substantiated problems presently exist.
Erikson, K. (1990). Toxic Reckoning: Business. Harvard Business Review Jan: 118-126.
Beamish, TD. (2002). Waiting for crisis: regulatory inaction and ineptitude and the Guadalupe Dunes oil spill. Social Problems 49(2): 150-177.