Justified

first_imgFew things in life can be said with certainty. The fact that the majority of people who come out of Oxford will go on to lead utterly unremarkable lives just happens to be one of them.As the biggest pandemic in recent history prepares to spread its menacing wings over Europe, the complacency with which the problem is being tackled is even more worrying than the destruction that it could bring.With all the potential for catastrophic losses and yet none of the glorious epitaphs that dying in battle for king and country entails, the idea that something as devastatingly unglamorous as bird flu could have a profound effect on the socio-economic and political landscapes of this century verges on the inconceivable.And yet the pandemic and its global spread are inevitable. The birds are definitely coming, the rest is just a matter of time and scale. And as we stare blankly at conflicting figures of casualty estimates thrown up by our computer screens, anonymous specialists around the world are working on finding ways to control the outbreak.It is all too easy to write off the daily “avian flu” headlines as just another editor’s bird-fetish-inspired whim; story-fillers whose sole destination will be the dustbin of medical history, following the previously trodden paths of mad cows and SARS.In reality the new war we face involves working against an ever-changing and invisible enemy. It is an enemy too intangible to be used to motivate or induce fear the masses, too vague to be of any use in morale-inducing propaganda. A purely intellectual war, its battlefield will be labs and its soldiers decked in overalls. Something so distant from our ordinary lives and understanding seems natural to be left to the specialists to sort out. And yet the decisions they make in the coming months could determine whether the death toll is 5 million or 150 million.The dangerous tendency to be complacent and rely on others to deal with such problems is all to easy to fall back on. Of all the supposedly top intellects in the country graduating each year from Oxford, only a small few will go on to hold positions of any real responsibility. And even though the next in line to have his or her past retched out before them by a hoard of hungry journalists could be standing next to you, the majority of students will be happy to carry on leading their day-to-day lives, knowing that nothing of such a potentially devastating scale could ever depend on them.The death toll of the Spanish pandemic of 1918-1919 matched that of the Second World War, a fact difficult to reconcile with the difference of public perception of the two events.However, considering the fact that the tactics in fighting the former ‘war’ included outlawing handshakes and imprisoning those who coughed in public, this is not surprising.Hitchcock envisaged a world where birds poke people’s eyes out; Bulghakov wrote about failed attempts to breed giant chickens generating an army of killer snakes. The reality is much less exciting, and its effects in the context of our complacent ignorance all the more grim. Our trust is placed blindly into the hands of unseen specialists. Meanwhile the rest of us continue to measure out our lives with coffee spoons; the only overwhelming question that we can bring ourselves to ask concerning the uncertain future of pigeon post.ARCHIVE: 2nd week MT 2005last_img

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