Here we go again, and this time the panic is on steroids. The Ebola sickness is a horrific disease, and the virus that causes it is lethal and fast-moving. But the way much of the media, which is also lethal and fast-moving, covers the outbreak is even more horrific, spreading misinformation, fear and panic faster than a speeding bullet.
You might think we’ll all be dead by Thursday next. Ebola joins AIDS, SARS, MERS and avian flu that were supposed to have accomplished wipeout by now. Ebola is a dark word, redolent of sorcery and reeking of mystery, a word that rolls easily off the tongue, and it’s short enough to fit neatly into a headline.
Village customs in parts of Africa that are strange to the rest of the world swiftly spread highly infectious diseases like Ebola, but these are customs absent in the United States and Europe. That’s why public health officials say the likelihood of a widespread outbreak in America is very low.
Hysteria is contagious, too, and far more contagious than a mere virus. Media hysteria was once largely confined to “television news,” with its shrill voices and screaming graphics in hot pursuit of “market share,” but the Internet has made shouting and screaming the national pastime. The Web has become a media free-for-all, inviting pile-on. Editors, such as there are, compete on the Web to see who can cry death and doom loudest. The Web purveyors of the news have temporarily suspended coverage of the missing Malaysian airliner to reprise fear and loathing in an endless loop of fright, out-of-date facts, rumors and speculation, played over and over.
Even some newspapers, once presided over by curmudgeons clutching a handful of blue pencils and eager to use them to keep their pages free of malignant melodrama, have joined the chase for a piece of that vast audience of lip-readers, sensation-seekers and the terminally ignorant.
Since nothing is as sensational as imminent death for all, a threat like a killer disease is irresistible. If it’s a disease imported from Africa, the dark continent whence comes all manner of fear and fright, sensation will know no bounds. Ebola is one of the most frightening viruses of this or any other year, with horrific symptoms and no cure but fear outruns the facts.
Perspective is lost. There’s a world of difference between an African village with open sewers and primitive sources of water shared by everyone, and everyday life in the United States (and Europe), where running water, flush toilets and basic personal hygiene are the rule, not the exception. Almost no one (except in the trendiest restaurants of Manhattan, where the weird and strange are the pleasures of the table) dines on fruit bats, large rodents and forest antelope, the “bush meat” that many African villagers regard as treats. “Life is not easy here in the village,” a village elder tells a correspondent for The London Guardian. “The authorities want to ban our traditions that we have observed for generations. Bush meat is available. Banning bush meat means a new way of life, which is unrealistic.”
Just trying to talk to backwoods villagers, whence the outbreak sprang, can be dangerous for the well-meaning who only want to help. In Guinea, one native volunteer tells the newspapers that villagers threatened to kill her. “We were told that if we don’t leave we would be cut into pieces and our flesh thrown into the water.”
Many villagers in the afflicted villages noticed that Ebola outbreaks occurred with the arrival of government agents promoting changes in the native way of life, and put 2 and 2 together and came up with 5. They accused health workers of spreading the sickness. Others blame witches who cast evil spells.
“The main behavior change needed is at funerals where a lot of cases are contracted,” says Stephane Doyonne, the co-ordinator of Doctors Without Borders. “That and good protective measures at [hospitals and clinics] are the most important targets.”
Exposure to the sick and the washing of bodies can be particularly dangerous. Touching and even embracing bodies is common in remote villages, and those who wash the dead for burial are particularly at risk because blood is a primary carrier of the virus. One of the characteristics of Ebola sickness is external bleeding. There’s blood, and lots of it.
Since that rarely happens with mourners in Rhode Island or Oregon or places between, the chances of Ebola sickness coming to America in big numbers — or even little numbers — is not great. The toll in Africa, horrific enough, would be much greater but for work of brave and selfless volunteers from America and Europe. Fear is natural, but hysteria makes it worse. Media, please copy.
Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.