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20 Apr, 2010 03:55

Ash, swine flu and other causes of mass hysteria – how real is the danger?

Volcanic ash has left hundreds of thousands trapped in airports, paralyzing flight connections in Europe. As the airspace starts to reopen, some are wondering if the response to the ash cloud was an overreaction.

Many flights still remain cancelled. According to meteorologists, the skies over Europe are beginning to clear as the volcano ash cloud is pushed away from European airspace.

The situation for the UK still looks gloomy, as recent weather reports suggest the ash cloud is returning to British air space.

Airlines are cursing European regulators for red tape and bad risk assessment.

Travelers, left stranded all around the globe, wonder if it was more about hazard or hype.

Arkady Tishkov, from the Institute of Geography at the Russian Academy of Sciences, believes the ash panic was baseless.

"The overall hysteria surrounding this volcano eruption is totally unwarranted,” Tishkov said. “This is not the largest volcano and often the plumes sent into the atmosphere reach even greater heights. The scale of this eruption is not that great. What we are witnessing now is an unnecessary apocalyptic reaction. But there are no grounds for it."

Grounds or no grounds, among the first things people heard about the ash cloud was that it could cause problems with teeth and bones, it is extremely dangerous for those with asthma and, of course, it could crash their planes. Only later did reports come that it is not that bad after all. However, the effect was already there. Many dubbed it another episode of hysteria in the 21st Century.

It took a year to realize that the outbreak of swine flu was not really an outbreak, and that normal, everyday seasonal flu kills many more people. Back in June last year, though, a mask seemed to be a must-have.

Drug firms cashed in on the panic, and the World Health Organization stands accused of announcing “a false pandemic”.

But psychologists say it is not about scientists' wrongdoings.

"People believe TV, that's the problem,” said Sergey Klyuchnikov, a psychologist. “Any event, when shared by the media, gets exaggerated by millions of times. Especially when it has to do with people's health and safety. Panic is contagious; people can't receive negative information and just keep it to themselves."

Now, when information is just a click away, spreading fear and capitalizing on fear has become much easier.

The impact of bird flu on humans has been assessed as very limited, but back in 2003, many thought it was going to claim millions of lives.

And at the beginning of the millennium, one part of the world sincerely expected everything from your clock radio to the Internet to nuclear power stations simply to stop working when all those zeros came in.

Unresolved apocalyptic scenarios are still lingering, one of them is global warming.

"We're being told there is an international scientific consensus on global warming,” said Konstantin Simonov, the head of National energy security fund. “But that's not true! We don't have enough evidence. And what’s more, we can't say that it's the carbon dioxide that could be causing the warming. But we are supposed to actually to take the two statements as a fact."

Psychologists say that people today are more exposed to mass hysteria, but they are also developing an emotional and psychological immunity. There are fears that people's reactions could become too numb to respond to any real danger.

The fear of perishing in a cloud of volcano dust is fading and now reasonable doubt arises as to whether or not paralyzing almost all air traffic in Europe for nearly a week was the right decision.

American radio host Michael Rivero believes the recent global warming scandal made British meteorologists overreact in a bid to try to regain the public's trust.

“A lot of people are thinking that the British meteorological office…in efforts to trying redeem itself in terms of usefulness to the public, may have in fact overreacted and over-emphasized the dangers of the volcanic cloud coming out of Iceland and declared a very wide-ranging no-fly zone that was inappropriate,” Rivero told RT. “On the other hand, you can’t be too careful with volcanic ash. Obviously, on the side of airlines and the travel industry as a whole – hotels and everything – money is very much on the line, there is a constant flow of tourism, and if it’s not happening, if travel is not happening, money is being lost and most of Europe is already in severe financial stress, much as the United States is right now.”

Frank Furedi, professor of sociology at the University of Kent, Britain, says that shutting down the airspace was an over-reaction based on speculation rather than scientific evidence.

“It’s very sad that in many respects the EU…finds it very difficult to do the most basic planning when it comes to such a major issue. I do think it’s important to realize that many countries all over the world face volcanic eruption. For example, countries like Italy still manage to have air traffic just by taking sensible precautions,” says Frank Furedi.