Magazine article The Spectator

Long Life: Alexander Chancellor

Magazine article The Spectator

Long Life: Alexander Chancellor

Article excerpt

I don't think I can remember a time when there have been so many scares about. They come at us from every direction, and even sometimes from out of the blue, with names we've never heard before. Take Isis, for example, or maybe Isil (there's not even now a consensus on what to call it). Yet neither name was known to any normal, newspaper-reading person until it was already in control of half the Middle East and beheading western hostages at will. Now the Prime Minister says that we must bomb the Islamic State in Iraq because it threatens our security at home. How can such a powerful and terrifying organisation appear on the scene so suddenly and without warning?

Ebola is not such a novelty -- the virus was first identified in 1976 -- but the idea that we are all threatened by it is new enough. In the 37 years between that of its discovery and 2013, the World Health Organisation reported 1,716 cases of Ebola, all of them in Africa. As of this month, there have not only been 8,376 cases in west Africa alone, more than 4,000 of them resulting in death, but the odd case also popping up in Spain and the United States. The disease is now bound to arrive in Britain as well, we are assured. There will be health checks at airports on passengers arriving from west Africa, and operators on the NHS 111 helpline are being asked to screen callers for possible symptoms of the disease.

Is all this Ebola anxiety justified? It would be nice to think not, but even the usually sceptical science writer Matt Ridley, who said in his column in the Times this week that he doesn't often find himself agreeing with apocalyptic warnings (which is certainly true over climate change, which he either believes isn't happening, or that it doesn't matter if it is -- I forget which), but that the west African Ebola epidemic 'deserves hyperbole right now'. If we don't win the battle against Ebola in west Africa, he wrote, 'then we are not facing paper tigers such as Sars or bird flu, but something much more like the great plague of Justinian in AD 541, or the Black Death eight centuries later'.

Add to these sudden scares the slower-burning ones -- war in Ukraine, recession in Europe, global warming, Ed Miliband, Nigel Farage -- and the future begins to look alarming; even more so if you take seriously the unending cacophany of health warnings issued by the media. …

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