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Anatomy of a catastrophe

· Repeated and unjustified planetary alarms ·

In the last ten years we have been targets of warnings of supposed world catastrophes, which are inflated by the media only to rapidly disappear from memory. Today, the same is happening with the Escherichia Coli virus that has infected a few hundred people. The epidemic, whose origins are unknown, has already been contained, but it has provoked anxiety, crisis in the food market, and friction between different European countries who blame one another for having started it.

We are in the aftermath of this infection which has been contained in time and space (around 40 people have died from it, less than the number who die in automobile accidents every day) but the media has enflamed the fire of alarmism with such terms as “bacteria-killer,” or “super aggressive genetic mix.”

It is not the first time. World crises have been unleashed with “Mad Cow,” in 2001, SARS in 2003, Avian flu of 2005, swine flu of 2009. They all were supposed to have annihilated mankind, according to certain “experts.” The Avian flu, according to a March 28, 2006 article in The New York Times , was predicted to cause from 5 million to 150 million deaths, whereas actual deaths were registered at around 300; the Swine flu saw a similar end, but not before causing States to purchase millions of doses of vaccine, which were left for the most part untouched, because the Swine flu proved to be less lethal than your average seasonal flu.

Andrea Kerbaker in his book, Bufale apocalittiche ( Apocalyptic Bunk ) writes: “In the last ten years, according to the news piling up in our media, we should have died ten times over, in the strangest ways. Pandemic, massacre, apocalypse: these are recurring terms for the press at the beginning of the third millennium.” And Andre Glucksman in Italian daily, Corriere della Sera, on June 12, wrote ironically: “Whoever buys vegetables, exposes himself to clouds of assassin bacteria. Scientific reassurances are in vain. The principle of precaution has become our gospel.”

The scientific press enquires, alarmed, about the source of such excessive catastrophic news. The International Journal of Risk and Safety in “Medicine,” January 2011 and the British Medical Journal , write of an enquiry commission that has been formed to study the management of the Swine flu “pandemic.”

But alarmism finds a welcome embrace in rational people who are ready to shout catastrophe at the first sign. Why? Where is the fertile social soil for catastrophic thinking? Some psychoses stem from the fact that certain individuals react in an irrational way to adverse events. According to psychiatrist, Albert Ellis (1913-2007), the mind begins to reason in an absurd way, for example: “An adverse event has happened to me, so the world is a disaster,” or, “I have had an accident therefore I am not worth anything.” It is the so-called catastrophic ideation. If we apply this at a social level, we see that like Ellis’ examples, post-modern society in the face of an adverse event, cries catastrophe and apocalypse, rather than rationalizing the fact. One plausible explanation is that we believe that life is acceptable only if we can control all of the details (here one could cite another widespread example, among many, the desire for physical perfection). When something escapes our control, some people rationally take cover whereas more often, psychoses is induced, sometimes on a collective basis.

In 1989, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger foresaw the roots of this tendency towards panic in a self-sufficient culture that is diffident towards others, where apparently everything is programmed and foreseeable: “Liberalism and illuminism want to insinuate us in a world without fear; they promise to do away with every type of fear. They wish to eliminate every dependency on another and its intimate tension. This search for security is founded on a total auto-affirmation of the self which denies the risk of going out of oneself and entrusting oneself to another.” He continues, “When one tries to completely eliminate fear, without any residue, repressed fear shows up in many guises, as a fundamental anxiety…In our time, these new anxieties germinate and assume in many ways the form of collective psychoses.” ( Guardare Cristo , Jaca Book). Yes, a system held together by false assurances of happiness, crumbles. Having lived through the latest’s wave of worldwide alarmism, we should already be preparing ourselves for new and more frequent ones.

This explosion of panic at every alarm in intolerable. International health authorities should watch over the appropriate use of terms like, “epidemic,” or “pandemic,” and sanction abusers. But those who move culture and politics have their share of responsibility too: it is urgently necessary to shift the weight of the rich West’s phobias to those who are really suffering epidemic illness, which has always devastated the poorest, and of which industrialized and powerful nations – short-sighted and distracted by often unjustified anxieties – have only a minimum awareness.

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