Chris Lancelot: Pandemic fears a symptom of our selfishness

As I write, 12 days after the outbreak came to the media's attention, Mexico has had 101 deaths attributed to swine flu. A number of cases, just one of them fatal, have turned up in a variety of developed countries. The UK has stockpiled enough Tamiflu to give a course to 50 per cent of our population, and a million facemasks are on order.

Meanwhile, in the developing world, more or less unnoticed, 800,000 die each year from malaria (90 per cent of them children). One child dies every three seconds from malnutrition - never mind preventable illnesses such as measles, pneumonia and diarrhoea. TB and hepatitis B are rife, to say nothing of the devastating effects of HIV on sub-Saharan Africa.

There were five million malnourished people in Mexico in 2003. (A lot of me wonders if this contributed to the lethality of swine flu there.) We worry about flu from Mexico, but not enough about the Mexican people who contracted it in the first place.

Everyone seems to comment on how under-educated US citizens are about events in the rest of the world, but I suspect we in the UK aren't much better.

One murder here receives about as much coverage as 80 violent deaths in the Middle East: an earthquake in Indonesia might have to kill thousands before we take notice.

SARS in China was only newsworthy because of the possibility that we in the West might get infected: otherwise - like bilharzia or trachoma - it was something that happened to other people in far-off lands.

Our concern for disease in other countries seems inversely proportional to their distance from us, though we are more interested if there are good pictures on the TV (and, as Andrew Marr has pithily pointed out, especially if these contain helicopters).

Meanwhile, (ironically) the UK government spends colossal amounts on combating assumed racial discrimination, and drawing up nit-picking protocols on everything from equality of opportunity to post-coital contraception. If given to Sight Savers International, this money could help significantly in ridding the developing world of blindness due to cataracts.

Are we inward-looking? Selfish? Imbalanced? Immoral? Not us!

Now, where did I put my Tamiflu?

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