By Ross Pfenning
With the rampant spread of Ebola media coverage influencing the American public’s sensibilities, it really isn’t surprising that so many have expressed their fears and concerns – no matter how ill-conceived – as vocally as they have. However, the media, both social and traditional, have amplified those voices to such an extent that the panic and borderline hysteria being exhibited daily are doing far more damage than the disease itself. Welcome to the era of the “e-Bola” virus.
Before we get going, it’s important to recognize that this is not the first time that citizens of the United States have been faced with such a perceived threat, nor reacted in such a panic-stricken and frenzied manner. With this in mind, Washington Post journalist Steven Petrow writes: “Americans nationwide are showing signs of an epidemic of fear, all too reminiscent of the stigmatization, dread of contagion and panic of the early years of HIV/AIDS.”
Living in San Francisco in the ‘80s and ‘90s, Petrow witnessed the ignorance-fueled fear firsthand. As he goes on to point out later in the article: “About the only thing that happened this [time] that didn’t mirror the AIDS panic was that the phrase ‘Ebola fear’ became a trending topic on Twitter — and that’s no doubt only because the social network was unimaginable in 1983.”
The ever-present “threat” posed by the virus, compounded by the media’s fear-mongering has led to some unfortunate and devastating consequences. Teachers are being forced to take mandatory leave or resign, children are being bullied in school and citizens of our supposedly free and equal democratic nation are being stigmatized for their origins. These are all people who have had zero contact with anyone even remotely associated with, let alone afflicted by, Ebola. They are merely people who have traveled to state of Texas, emigrated from countries such as Liberia or are the children of such immigrants to the United States.
According to a poll conducted by the Harvard School of Public Health and shared via NPR, as of mid-October, 40 percent of Americans felt they were at risk of contracting Ebola. Despite constant reminders from credible sources regarding the likelihood of catching Ebola, the public at large seems all too eager to forget that the virus can only be transmitted through bodily fluids and people are only contagious once they have begun exhibiting symptoms. Of course, showmen like Dr. Oz make it harder still for such reassuring facts to sink in, postulating (on national television) as to whether the Ebola virus could mutate and go airborne. (For anyone wondering, epidemiologists agree that it’s unlikely and not even worth discussing at the moment.)
While clearly not an isolated case of the media’s oversaturation and even exaggeration of a given situation, the Ebola scare does provide a textbook example of the systemic spread of (loosely-termed) “news” and its harmful effects. As stated in this New York Times article: “The panic in some way mirrors what followed the anthrax attacks of 2001 and the West Nile virus outbreak in New York City in 1999. But fed by social media and the 24-hour news cycle, the first American experience with Ebola has become a lesson in the ways things that go viral electronically can be as potent and frightening as those that do so biologically.”
Lending further evidence to the argument that fear-stoked epidemics within the United States can cause more harm than the diseases themselves, the previously cited Washington Post article asserts: “‘AIDS phobia,’ a term used to describe discrimination against those with HIV, ravaged the United States because of a dearth of political leadership, misleading if not inaccurate information from public health officials, and a news media that stoked anxiety in its quest for ratings and headlines. Together, these became almost as dangerous to public health and civil rights as the virus itself.”
With documented cases of improper and even antagonistic responses to previous crises, one would think we’d have learned our lesson(s). However, in keeping with Santayana’s ethic – and adjusting only slightly for cultural relevancy – “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to retweet it.”
Photo courtesy of Twitter.
By Ross Pfenning