Now, to the Economists' leader in the latest issue: "On a wing and a scare: Preparing for an influenza pandemic makes sense. Panic doesn't" (I don't think the full-text is available to non-subscribers)
Or are politicians simply helping to feed public panic, and then covering themselves by promising to spend lavishly against a threat which may never materialise and to reduce a risk which they do not understand? To ask these questions is not to counsel complacency, but to apply the kind of test which is required in any kind of disaster planning, not least because the world is an inherently dangerous place and it is impossible to plan against every possible disaster. With the media full of warnings of impending mass death, an overreaction is all too possible.They're more on the "if, not yet when" stage, I guess. Cautious, but still. It's the Economist.
These are all legitimate points, and there is undeniably a lot of uncertainty about the possibility of a pandemic. And yet it is also true that governments, companies and individuals regularly have no choice but to plan in situations of uncertainty. The trick is to do this in a way which is rational and proportionate. In the case of bird flu, most of the measures being contemplated so far can meet the sceptics' tests
The unpalatable truth is that if the current version of avian influenza turns into a human pandemic in the near future, there is probably not enough time for most countries to stop it from spreading or to cope well with its effects. Panic about this will do no good, and could do a lot of harm. But preparing now for an outbreak of a pandemic at some stage in the future does make sense. Even if the threat from today's bird flu fades, it is plausible to think that another virus, in the not-too-distant future, may pose another threat. In an increasingly inter-connected world, viruses, like people, travel more easily.