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Sunday 3 May 2009

For this crisis, we don't need to frighten the children 

Michael O'Leary had it right when he laughed off some of the over-reaction says Ruth Dudley Edwards

I love Michael O'Leary, even if I hate travelling on his truculent airline. Publicly anyway, he never utters a dull sentence and -- in a world dominated by politically-correct wimps -- he's a treat.

In London recently he was in great form, planning to tax overweight passengers ("nobody wants to sit beside a really fat bugger on board"). But it was his reaction to the present hysteria over swine flu that made me particularly joyous. "We have been dealing with swine for many years in the BAA [British Airport Authority], CAA [Civil Aviation Authority] and DAA [Dublin Airport Authority]," he explained. Swine flu "is a tragedy only for people living in slums in Asia or Mexico. But will the honeymoon couple from Edinburgh die? No. A couple of Strepsils will do the job."

Well, of course he would say that, wouldn't he? He has a European airline to run. But his instincts are right, as they were after 9/11 when he said we should all stick two fingers up to terrorists by flying more often. Rather than allowing ourselves to be caught up in the hysteria fomented by the insatiable needs of round-the-clock media, we should of course be carrying on as usual. Fewer people have died of swine flu, even in the Mexican slums, than die every year of diseases acquired in Irish hospitals. Don't just tell us not to panic, Mary Harney, remind us of all the diseases we were threatened with that never hit us -- mad cow disease, SARS, Avian flu and so on -- and tell us to grow up and get a sense of proportion. She won't be standing again after all, so she can afford to give us home truths.

She could afford to be savage with the scaremongering media as well. The BBC's Today programme on Friday last featured Professor John Oxford, a distinguished virologist, who had added to the general terror by warning that swine flu might travel south and mix with bird flu to create 'Armageddon flu'.

Plaintively, he pointed out that he had not initiated that quote, but he had obligingly answered a journalist who asked him "to trace an Armageddon scenario". He also said he would go to Mexico tomorrow as the risk of acquiring swine flu even there was minuscule. He's disappeared from the headlines and probably won't be asked back.

As I was writing this, the BBC ticker tape at the top of my screen said 'Swine flu couple "feared dying"'. It turned out not that it was feared the afflicted Scottish couple were dying, but that at one stage because of all the carry-on they had feared they might be. They're fine, by the way, and back home. Their friend who acquired the virus from them is also at home with mild fluey symptoms. How disappointing!

A school in Devon shut the other day because a 12-year-old girl was thought to have contracted the virus. A pupil described how when they heard the news, "everyone started crying and holding their noses."

Why are we frightening our children? It's hard to avoid feeling that politicians are talking this up because they're desperate to get the focus off their economic cock-ups, and the media are doing likewise because they are bored with figures and want tear-jerking drama. I deeply resent that the result will be pointless fear and more money wasted on gimmicks like useless face masks.

Can't we leave the serious people at the World Health Organisation to get on with giving advice on how to deal with what they have renamed H1N1 influenza A so as to distance the disease from pork, which is perfectly safe, but imports of which from affected countries China and Russia are idiotically banning.

Yet though I don't take this crisis seriously, I do believe there is disaster ahead unless we force our politicians to deal with the evils of modern food production. The evidence is overwhelming that intensive farming is not just cruel, but is potentially dangerous for humans. Factory farming in areas of high population density breeds animal-to-human disease: some day we might indeed have Armageddon, and we'll deserve it. Meanwhile, this time round, there's not a damn thing we can do about swine flu so we should ignore it.

It was hard not to laugh when I read that the same day as the great O'Leary was sounding off in London, a Ryanair flight from France was the first Irish-bound flight to be quarantined at Dublin airport when three students began vomiting.

Passengers were held in the plane until HSE medical staff had given them the all-clear for swine flu. I'd love to hear what O'Leary said about that.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards