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You're Overreacting to the Ebola Outbreak, and It's Not Helping

That includes the public, politicians, and even this magazine

Bryan Thomas/Getty Images News

On Friday, the governors of New York and New Jersey decided to impose a mandatory quarantine period of 21 days on all travelers who have come in contact with Ebola victims in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea, ostensibly to quell public fear and demonstrate they are taking “action.”  The move has already generated much criticism and raised the concerns of the Obama administration, which has asked the governors to reverse their decision. (Both have since loosened restrictions.)

The president himself has received much flak for his supposed “missteps” regarding Ebola, apparently because he has chosen to follow the recommendations of the Centers for Disease Control and other health officials familiar with the disease, all while ignoring the advice of certain talking heads on cable TV networks. In a sure sign of election year focus-group politics, democratic Senate candidates have fallen over themselves to join in on the calls for travel bans on the affected countries, this despite the fact that most experts agree this would likely make the situation worse.

We have been told that these quarantines and travel bans are necessary to address the growing public fear about the spread of Ebola. The public will panic if our leaders do not take swift and decisive precautions to safeguard our collective health. But public panic does not arise in a vacuum. The fear of contracting Ebola—apparently held by 45 percent of people in this country in a recent survey—is an irrational fear, stoked and compounded by a media all too willing to engage in irresponsible innuendo and equivocation. There are the facts about Ebola, and then there is the media narrative. Unfortunately, for far too many outlets in this country, the narrative is one of acknowledging said facts while at the same time insinuating that they may be wrong, insisting that the experts are not telling us the truth, and focusing on scenarios and hypotheticals designed to alarm readers and viewers rather than inform them.

What should we expect, in a culture where fact-based journalism has been so thoroughly eclipsed by commentary and punditry, the pontificati explaining to us how we should feel about an issue rather than simply reporting the news? And Ebola is a newsroom's dream: a story sure to hook countless people to their TV and computer screens, hungry for more and more information. But treating a national health crisis in the same way we treat stories about NFL or celebrity scandals seems highly irresponsible.

Look no further than the domino effect of events since Dr. Craig Spencer was diagnosed as having Ebola on Thursday. Dozens of stories like this one about the trains he took, his visit to the High Line and the bowling alley he visited on Wednesday night. Fox News' Megyn Kelly calling Spencer “irresponsible” for not quarantining himself. Twitter ablaze with flames, some saying the doctor should be “tried for manslaughter” should anyone be infected by him. News outlets including The New Republic questioning why Spencer “needed” to go bowling that night. All of this stoked by false reports of Spencer having a 103 fever when he was checked Thursday morning. 

And what did all these stories beget? Said quarantine by governors Chris Christie and Andrew Cuomo, no doubt acting “out of an abundance of caution,” that most trite and misleading phrase of all. Let us examine this “caution” in which they are acting, a caution which, no matter how you look at it, exists only to reinforce the misguided notion that people who are asymptomatic can somehow spread the disease. I'm sure Cuomo and Christie are convinced they are acting for the public's benefit. Leaders, after all, must exhibit leadership. Never mind that their decision could have the opposite of its intended effects, not only making us less safe from Ebola but also more fearful. And much like a virus, this fear will feed on itself and essentially confirm for a great swath of the public that these measures needed to be taken—that somehow, without them, we are not safe. The facts, however, suggest otherwise. 

The experts have repeatedly stated that Ebola is only communicable via an infected patient's bodily fluids—usually their vomit, feces or blood—once that patient has become symptomatic, or by objects also contaminated with the virus. All three people who have been infected with Ebola within the United States worked directly with Ebola patients. So far, not a single person who has had contact with these individuals has contracted the disease, even though, as in the case of Thomas Eric Duncan's family members, they lived with him in Dallas for several days before and after he was symptomatic.

Considering this, what is the wisdom in quarantining those who are volunteering to go abroad and be our first line of defense against the virus? Nurse Kaci Hickox, quarantined at a New Jersey hospital after treating Ebola patients in Sierra Leone, wrote a blistering criticism against the policy (and is now suing) citing her fear that volunteers such as herself would be treated like “criminals and prisoners.”

Dr. Spencer also did nothing wrong. Reports suggest that he followed protocols to a tee. When we crucify selfless individuals like these who are risking their lives to stop the disease in its tracks, are we not in effect discouraging others like them from volunteering? The message from the experts is clear: Ebola will only be contained by a committed effort of tracing, isolating and treating the infected in those countries where the disease is rampant. Early detection and gaining public trust are essential. This is how Ebola was contained in Nigeria, not through travel bans or quarantines, nor by pundits demands' for “more steps,” but by collective action on the ground, in the places where the virus has taken hold. 

Public health crises are not just another news story. With Ebola, the media not only created the fear but then continuously compounded it, resulting in these rash policy decisions which may have far-reaching consequences, despite how decisive or well-intentioned they may seem. Given the enormous interest that stories like Ebola are sure to arouse, we in the media have a larger responsibility than simply voicing our opinions or speculating about scenarios that really aren't based in fact. Keeping a public informed requires a certain degree of humility, and a concession that in cases where our own fears and emotions run counter to the facts, that those fears be kept in check. The stories may end up seeming less exciting. They might not get as high ratings or as many clicks, but they will have the benefit of being true, and truth, in these circumstances, is by far the greatest weapon against public fear.