On holiday in the Mediterranean this summer, I spent a large proportion of time, like many readers I’m sure, thinking about germs.

Having been educated that bacteria thrive in warm places, I have always assumed it to be axiomatic that hot countries are a veritable microbe arboretum.  Therefore on such holidays I get very tense at any food left out of the fridge, believing that if I turn my back for a moment it will instantly become a green hairy ball.  Rubbish must be removed before typhoid sets in.  All surfaces must be scrubbed with a solution of bleach, quicklime and Agent Orange.

I did stop now and then and wonder whence I got this idea that the environment around me is so implacably hostile.  Then, when we got home I read one newspaper and watched a couple of TV adverts and suddenly everything was clear.  There are bacteria after you everywhere. It is now a fact (I kid you not, somebody told me this the other day with a straight face) that you come out of hospital more ill than when you went in, because of MRSA or other nameless superbugs.  And it’s not just bacteria – all food is out to get you as well.  Having someone else’s child to tea involves their parents sending round a SWAT team to check your house for traces of nuts, gluten, cow’s milk, yeast or hydrogenated vegetable oil.

And it gets worse. I read in the paper last week that latex proteins in food wrappers are putting millions of people at risk from ‘life threatening allergic reactions’.  Now you don’t even have to eat the food: picking it up in the supermarket may be the last thing you ever do.

But it’s OK, because technology, as always, is one step ahead.  Microbes out to get you?  You can buy socks which destroy the bacteria invading your shoes (and in the process do your bit to help the drought by never having to wash) and you can buy chopping boards made of some weird plastic that kills micro-organisms.  You can fill your stomach with ‘friendly bacteria’ (which work by inviting the hostile bacteria to cheese and wine parties or Bible classes until they panic and leave your intestines for pastures new.).

Have the manufacturers of these innovations never studied the process of evolution?  Has it not occurred to them that the reason we are now at the mercy of superbugs is because they have adapted to overcome the ever more deadly anti-bug technology?  (I remember once reading a memorable definition of ‘human being’ as ‘technology invented by bacteria to help them get around the place’.)  Now that anti-MRSA cleaning wipes are on the supermarket shelves, evolution will doubtless respond by creating giant jackbooted bacteria hit squads to kick our doors down in the night.

What is it that we find so compelling about the idea that invisible things are out to get us?  Well, partly it’s a reaction to the current global jitteriness; as with the ‘reds under the beds’ mentality of the Communist era, so stateless terrorism has reacquainted us with evil that we cannot see until it gets us; bacteria are a useful metaphor to project our paranoia onto.  Like Osama Bin Laden, you can’t see them, but if you destroy everything in the vicinity you will sleep easier in your bed.

It’s also symptomatic of the zeitgeist that everything that happens to us is someone – or something else’s fault.  But I’ve banged on about this before, so I refer you to

In this paranoid age the workplace, too, is an arena in which we wage war on the invisible enemies who are all out to get us.  You may not catch any MRSA, but watch out for the following strains:

Bacillus Hominus odorosus: A parasite which attaches itself to you when you visit the watercooler, oozing distasteful charm and sucking stories from you about your plans for the weekend.

Staphylo-bossus Unreasonablus: Strikes late in the day when you are tired and defenceless; leaves piles of festering documents on your desk which infect your brain with feelings of guilt and depression.

Clostridium Consultantum Managementum:  Left unobserved can breed at an alarming rate.  In a short space of time you may find several thousand have infected your company’s systems, and made them spew out large numbers of unpalatable documents.

But you don’t need to take extreme measures to deal with the things which plague you at work.  In the case of bacteria, we too have been bred by evolution to be well defended.  In the case of the office, an inner core of resilience is your equivalent of a handful of friendly bacteria. 

© Phil Lowe, 2006.  All rights reserved.