These are nervous times. By an astounding coincidence, as I wrote that line and paused to think of what to put next, I had a call from a friend to tell me there was a Sars case at the Waikato Hospital and to ask whether, in my other role as a subeditor at the Waikato Times, I would want to pass that on.
Astounding because I was about to add that the Sars panic seems to have taken over from the terrorism panic (although just the other day someone caused an alert after discovering “white powder” – almost certainly crystallised sugar – on his chewing gum) as the concern of the month.
True, it’s early days, but Sars doesn’t seem to have what it takes to be a true pandemic. It’s just not contagious enough – if a country with resources as limited as Vietnam’s can control and eliminate it, the rest of the world should be able to handle it too. It’s hard not to conclude that there has been a substantial over-reaction to the outbreak.
Now alright, I’m not that old, but I’m sure it never used to be like this. Death and disease used to be all part of life. People got, say, tuberculosis, went to the Sanatorium, and if they were lucky they came out again a few months later. If not, the rest of the community would gather around the bereaved family. Miners died of foul lung diseases and that’s just the way things were.
In one sense, then, the current panics are a good thing. They show that human life is more highly valued than it was in the past. They are perhaps also a symptom of the secularisation of society. At one time the bulk of the population would have believed that physical death was only the beginning of an immortal life in the hereafter, and therefore not a cause for prolonged grief. With that certainty gone for most of us, we are acutely aware that this life is all we have, and are terrified at the prospect of having it snatched away from us.
The sophistication of our modern, secular society, then, is only skin deep. As Carl Sagan said, “…the candle flickers, and the darkness gathers, the demons begin to stir.”
No doubt some would have predicted that following the decline of religious beliefs we would enter a brave new world of rational thought as a species. The hysteria over Sars, white powder and cellphone towers show this is not the case. Human nature remains the same as it ever was.