be afraid be very afraid of fear itself

I was walking by the handcarts at the grocery store when I noticed a Sani-Wipe dispenser mounted on the post beside the carts.

I was walking by the handcarts at the grocery store when I noticed a Sani-Wipe dispenser mounted on the post beside the carts. Wash your hands before you touch a shopping cart? The weird thing is that almost everyone would consider this common sense these days.

Then I started looking around. The damned things were everywhere. Sani-Wipes and antibacterial sprays have become ubiquitous. They’re in the schools, the washrooms, public buildings, and elevators!

This immediately made me think of two recent high school science projects. One girl found that Lysol killed the most bacteria. Another young girl’s project claimed to prove that regular use of Lysol led to more Lysol-resistant bacteria.

While washing your hands is a good idea, I began wondering about our culture’s fear of the natural world. This has been growing in direct relation to our distance from it. In North America 200 years ago, more than 90 per cent of the population lived in the rural world.

These days, depending on where you get your numbers, approximately two per cent of the population live on farms. The remainder reside in cities and suburbs, and they’re growing increasingly afraid.

The truth is, you can use Sani-Wipes up the yin-yang and you still aren’t going to kill a thousandth of a per cent of the bacteria in the world. Here’s some information. Bacteria are smarter than Sani-Wipes, and I wonder what this cleanliness fetish is doing to our immune systems, aside from toughening up enemy bacteria.

There used to be the pound-of-dirt concept. Remember how we were all supposed to eat our pound of dirt in our childhoods? But that was when people had immune systems and asthma was so rare that children during school assembly would stare at the poor lonely kid in the auditorium who had it. We might have been ignorant those days, but we were a lot less paranoid – except maybe about those atom-bomb-wielding commie Reds.

Now the local park wardens report that helicopter parents (called this because they lovingly hover over their little angels) are handing the poor tykes Sani-Wipes and bacterial sprays in case they happen to touch a frog during an escorted “nature tour.”

This has led to children spending their lives blinking at computer screens, and the playgrounds are turning into ghost grounds. Meanwhile their helicopter parents are fetching them their vitamins and anti-oxidants, their Sani-Wipes, and their iPhones.

Psychiatrists are coining delicious new terms such as “nature deficit disorder” while they deal with the demands of the “Me generation,” and therapists write books like Too Safe For Their Own Good.

We’ve bred an unhealthy, entitled generation who protest grades below 80 per cent in universities. “Sniff, I never had less than A, sniff, before this.” Instructors are demanding more categories of ‘A’ in order to keep track of students, ie, A+++, A++, A+, A, A-, A—, etc. Failure is no longer an option unless the student dies or leaves the country, and even that merely means “unable to complete.”

Perhaps this is why we’ve reached the stage where a student has sued his university for not catching him plagiarizing earlier -“a technique” he often used because he didn’t know plagiarism was an offense, even though the university insists it has clear guidelines. Naturally, his mother announced the family is seeking a lawyer because, “We just don’t want this to happen to others.”

Another student is suing her varsity because she graduated with $70,000 worth of debt in April and still hasn’t found a job. I’m betting, at this moment, there’s a few organizations grateful they didn’t hire her.

Meanwhile, the media lavishes fear and terror upon the general public. It’s time to buy shares in Sani-Wipes.

Every year since 2001 there’s been a worldwide threat. Terrorists! BSE! SARS! HOOF AND MOUTH DISEASE! WMDs (remember those?)! AVIAN FLU (twice)! This year’s pandemic is the dreaded H1N1, formerly known as the swine flu until a panicked population stopped eating pork and sent another truckload of Canadian farmers into bankruptcy.

Fear sells newspapers and magazines and websites and keeps everyone glued to their TV sets and computer screens, away from those terrible woods, or eyeballing passersby with suspicion when they have to touch a shopping cart.

Instead of dealing with inner city poverty or honestly trying to improve the dismal living conditions in some aboriginal communities, hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent by our government to prepare for H1N1, and God knows how much money by the media, which are busily scaring everyone to death over a flu that so far has proved less dangerous than the regular yearly flu.

I can see it now, the dumps of North America will be overflowing with Sani-Wipes.

Every week our dithering health officials confuse the general population about flu vaccines and dangers, or insult native villages by sending them body bags.

Now the government of BC has announced it will supply Tamiflu, the one usable treatment against flu, to every citizen for free.

This is nearly guaranteed to make the treatment useless against the next flu that comes along as the bugs build up their immunity to Tamiflu – as they have done against almost every antibiotic since we started feeding antibiotics to our livestock and taking them ourselves whenever we sneezed.

Canadians are now the safest people in history, and the most vocally fearful. The Americans would be safe too, if someone took away their stupid handguns and gave them some of those really useful Sani-Wipes.

Avian flu, SARS, terrorists, dirty bombs, H1N1, tsunamis, BSE… It’s so dangerous out there I’m a little scared myself. Hell, I could drown in a tidal wave of Sani-Wipes.

Brian Brett, poet, journalist and novelist, lives on Salt Spring Island and returns to the Yukon whenever he can. His new book, Trauma Farm: A Rebel History of Rural Life, has just been released by Greystone Books.

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