Swine flu – bringing out the control freak in all of us

Charlie Brooker is right, our neuroses over swine flu stems from our perceived lack of control over the situation.

These days, with such complete control over most aspects of our lives, it’s only the things which we don’t feel we have any power over which really start to panic us. We’re happy to hit self destruct and meddle with our health, the environment and even with the lives of ourselves and those around us, as long as we feel as though we are ‘in control’.

I was sat outside on the Southbank the other day and the person who had previously sat at my table had left behind an empty packet of cigarettes. I don’t smoke, and this was during the week when every case of swine flu in the world was being reported in the headlines of all the major (UK) papers. At this point in time the news was reaching the point of hysteria over the fact that five people in the UK had so far caught the disease, and all were displaying ‘mild’ symptoms.

Yet here I was, in front of an empty cigarette packet. Clearly, whoever had left this behind had smoked all of its contents. And half the front of the packet was taken up with the words ‘Smoking kills’. In big black letters. On a white background. There was nothing subtle about it. And, no this is not the first time I’ve ever noticed this characteristic of a cigarette packet, but it was the first time I was directly comparing a day of hysteria over what is at the moment still a glorified cold and fever, with a packet of something that millions of people across the world consume every day for leisure purposes, despite there being death warnings on the front of the packets.

I was confused for a few minutes. Genuinely wondering to myself what it is about the human psyche that makes us all so dim. And I’m not just having a go at smokers. We all do this to ourselves in some shape or form. Most of us eat food that we know is unhealthy and could lead to heart disease, most of us drink, knowing this could one day damage our liver irreparably, some will even get into a car, as in a huge piece of metal which can travel at over 100mph, and try to drive it whilst being drunk.

So, as I sat there, freaking out whenever someone so much as sneezed anywhere near me (and it’s hay fever season right now, I’m disappointed in myself, I really am) I realised that the thing about smoking is that people are doing it out of choice and they know that although it is damaging their health, they can quit whenever they choose. At least, this is probably the psyche behind it, in reality it’s much harder to rid yourself of bad habits, however self-inflicted they are.

However, with swine flu it’s been made very clear to us all, over and over, that there is not a huge amount any of us can do to prevent ourselves from catching it. The best anyone has been able to come up with is to make sure we wash our hands with soap. For the unhygienic, slightly selfish morons amongst us, this may now lead to a change in lifestyle, but as far as I’m aware we were all supposed to be ‘washing our hands with soap’ this whole time anyway.

Apart from the fact that you couldn’t find out about anything else going on in the world for days, one of the main things which irritated me over the reporting of swine flu was that a lot of information was being fed to us about the problem, but there wasn’t much in the way of solutions.

I’d be very interested to see what the wording was in swine flu related Google searches over the last few weeks. And I’d bet that a very large proportion of them were about how to prevent yourself from contracting the disease or how likely it is to be killed by it. Again, searches like this symbolise our desire for control over a situation. We either want to know that it is not deadly enough to kill us anyway or we want to know what we can do to stop ourselves from being affected by it at all.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not blasé about swine flu. I realise it could mutate, I realise even in its current form it has managed to kill. And in many ways, even being able to write about it in a seemingly rational way will not stop me from thinking about it when I’m crammed into the underground, surrounded by coughs and sneezes. I will certainly be keeping an eye on things in the news.

However, we do need to keep things in proportion and realise that at the moment some of the main killers in the world are things which are often self-inflicted. So, there is no need to panic quite so much over swine flu simply because we don’t have the power to stop it from spreading.


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