The Arc of the Ebola Crisis

The specter of contracting Ebola is a dystopian nightmare. Whether fear of the virus justified the media’s panic-fueling coverage is another matter.

Here are some incontrovertible facts: Ebola is a frightening, often deadly scourge. It is highly contagious, but only when the infected person is showing unmistakable signs of the virus: fever, vomiting, diarrhea, and droplets of body secretions enter another person through eyes, ears,mouth of cuts. Ebola is killed with hospital-grade disinfectants (such as household bleach), according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Ebola on dry surfaces, such as doorknobs and countertops, can survive for several hours; however, virus in body fluids (such as blood) can survive up to several days at room temperature.

Other facts: the United States was woefully unprepared for dealing with Ebola, despite the fact that the virus was burgeoning out of control in west Africa for months. Because it was there, not here, no one paid much attention to Ebola.  But when an infected Liberian landed in Dallas, sick with Ebola, the hospital didn’t diagnose the illness despite knowing that the man had come to the U.S. from a nation battling the virus. When the man died on Oct. 8, Ebola was suddenly on everyone’s radar screen. while public confidence in the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and state and local public health agencies was shaken to the core.  The mainstream and social media industry went into Defcon 5 overdrive, provoking the public’s growing fears about a decimating pandemic here.

But today, less than three weeks after the death of Thomas Duncan died of Ebola in Dallas, there has been no pandemic, there has been no widespread infection, and the number of virus-infected Americans stands precisely at three. Two of them, nurses who  cared for Duncan, are recovering; one of them was released from hospital and is seen hugging President Obama in a carefully orchestrated Oval Office photo op (a journalistic term for a staged event) intended to demonstrate that the nurse is just fine, thank you.

Meanwhile, in news that’s increasingly buried “below the fold” (a newspaper saying denoting stories of lesser public interest), the NBC cameraman who caught the virus on location in west Africa has recovered, as well as the Spanish nurse whose pet dog was euthanized for fear that it could spread the virus. The latest to be diagnosed with the virus, a New York City physician who served on the front lines battling Ebola in Africa, is now under quarantine and helping direct his own recovery. Again, all this in less than three weeks time.

To be perfectly clear, Ebola still poses a major world health threat as it spreads among people in Liberia, Guiena and Sierra Leone, and possibly elsewhere in the region.  Health experts predict it will get worse before subsiding.

Yet in the U.S., Ebola has taken, if not a death toll, then a psychic toll, leaving a shaken public already nervous about ISIS, the sluggish economy, increasing college debt and a host of other worries. How did this happen in a nation with, arguably, the world’s most advanced health care system?

The answer, in my mind, is threefold.  First, Americans are serial isolationists.  We pay little attention to world developments unless or until it is perceived that we are somehow at risk.  Ebola has been around since 1967, devastaing swaths of Africans, yet it might as well have been on Mars for all the concern we showed for the virus.

Second, media sensationism drove the Ebola scare, with social media playing an ever larger, and not altogether helpful, role in the narrative. This is the direct result of the new nature of 24/7 news coverage, with intense pressure on journalists and bloggers (to say nothing of social media tweeters and Facebook posters) to rush to print (another journalism saying) with no perspective, little background, and lots of opinion, rumor and mis-information baked in.

CNN, to mention one egregious example, covered the virus with a not-so-faint whiff of hysteria as anchors and reporters kept the story alive with preposterous tease-in questions like “will people in the U.S. die from Ebola,” and “are we prepared for an Ebola pandemic?” Not to be outdone, Fox News established  an impossible benchmark — absolute protection against Ebola for all Americans — and then used that measure to pillory the CDC. Catch this grilling of CDC Director Tom Frieden by Fox News:

Certainly, the agency’s initial response came across as confused and bumbling, and criticism was justified.  But no other player in the drama was held to the media’s standard of 100% perfection; certainly not the Dallas hospital where Duncan died (after being sent home with a 103-degree fever)! The media and social media instead pointed their angry fingers at the CDC and its mild-mannered, low key director, a career public health physician with impeccable qualifications and direct, first hand knowledgeof Ebola from trips to west Africa, but with a low key TV presence only his mom could like.

The third dimension of the crisis was political. The approaching mid-term elections all but guaranteed that the political “optics” of the virus would be inserted into the coverage. Commentators and bloggers kept suggesting that the nation’s guardian at the gate — the CDC — had let the crisis fester while it dithered.  This satisifed a partisan political narrative that seemingly accompanies almost every event, and led to mounting criticism of White House inaction, partly justified as the President hesitated to take any firm action. The more criticism was voiced in the media, the more people concluded that they were imminent danger, drowning out those who cautioned calm. Within days, if you were absorbing the evening news or following on Twitter, the end was near, facts to the contrary aside.

As this is written, the arc of the Ebola crisis appears to have begun its downward slope. After stumbling out of the gate following Duncan’s death, the CDC has gained control not just of the response to the virus, but the public’s perception that things are now being managed. Coverage and commentary of the New York physician diagnosed with the virus is largely devoid of hysteria and low-key, prompting even the Wall Street Journal to offer praise to the CDC and public health care officials. There is also, if you care to look for it, exceptional coverage of the Ebola outbreak.

Perhaps this would be a good moment for some serious introspection. Did panic-stricken tweets and scary Facebook posts excerbate the situation? Does the MSM not have some responsibility to refrain from “ripping and reading” (another old journalism term) without also providing perspective and informed expertise? Like so many recent media-driven events, the Ebola scare has been plagued from the start by unsubstantiated information and rumor-mongering in social media channels. Such paranoia might have limited impact save for the fact that traditional news coverage is increasingly dictated by what’s playing in social media. Editors measure coverage by page views and hashtag “trending, rather than old-fashioned fact gathering, and this symbiotic relationship merely serves to throw fuel on the fire, without illuminating anything.

The Ebola crisis — in Africa — is nowhere near resolution.  The virus’ relentless march of devasatation continues, even as nations from all over the globe are sending help and medicines to the region. Research for an effective vaccine is underway in labs around the world, but no one thinks an antidote will be ready for months. With deaths mounting “over there,” that is where the Ebola story really is.

Talk about burying the lead. Literally.



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