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Ebola’s Biggest Threat? Fear Mongering

Panic over Ebola has reached its pinnacle in the US

Panic over Ebola has reached its pinnacle in the U.S.

Panic over the potential for a global Ebola Virus pandemic continues to rise. New cases emerging in the U.S. have put everyone on high alert, striking fear into the hearts of travelers. News surfaces daily with reports about possible exposures to the deadly virus, such as an infected woman boarding a passenger plane or a lab analyst who may have handled deceased Ebola victim Thomas Eric Duncan’s blood before boarding a Carnival Cruise. Even the government is no longer safe as an Ebola scare at the Pentagon on Oct. 17 forced an entire parking lot to be closed for fear that one of the Marines on a bus had contracted the virus.

The World Health Organization (WHO) — the authority for health within the United Nations system — has done little to quell fears announcing that within two months 10,000 new cases of Ebola a week could become a reality. With over 4,500 deaths now reported and over 9,000 confirmed cases, the virus has managed to outdistance international response thus far.

While there remains little doubt that Ebola could potentially evolve into a major global health crisis, it remains equally plausible that the virus could be contained within nine months. News stories and Congressional Hearings are a necessity in understanding and educating about the virus and how it can be passed. However, it is an important job of the media to use their best judgement when reporting on every false alarm, sniffle or sneeze that is heard across the globe. The real danger of Ebola is in the panic it can cause, both in West Africa and elsewhere. This remains the highest security issue.

Search the internet for news on the Ebola Virus and you will receive a host of strange stories, such as “Can pets get or spread Ebola?” (The answer is no, unless they have eaten infected animals or licked the vomit of infected humans.) All aim at striking fear (or “news” as the media calls it) into the heart of the population.

And the fear mongering is working. I frequently work in Tanzania for a local NGO, African Community Advancement Initiative, and many people have told me how crazy I was to have a planned trip to Africa with the Ebola on the continent. Just to clarify, Tanzania is in East Africa and over 5,000 miles from Guinea, the source of the virus. By comparison, that is nearly twice as far as it is from Seattle to Miami. Prior to the last few weeks before Mr. Duncan contracted and sadly died from the disease, the threat of Ebola seemed like poverty in Africa, a world away. Suddenly it is the topic of every conversation, with travelers leery of leaving their homes for fear of contracting Ebola.

Clearly, the fear of something can have even more catastrophic effects than the thing itself.  “Hysteria and panic, I see, are really more contagious than the disease itself,” said economist Carlos Lopes from Guinea-Bissau, who heads the U.N. Economic Commission for Africa.

African tourism has come to a standstill, even in places far away from the outbreak. For a continent that has long lagged behind the rest of the planet in terms of development, a crushing blow such as this to the economy can have rippling effects for years to come.

Fear mongering has already caused instability in the three countries that it has affected most. Quarantining an entire country has severe economic repercussions. The Ebola virus could lead to a $32 billion hit for West African economies. This could lead to sharp declines in regional industries such as agriculture, mining and tourism. Even local shops have been forced to close due to quarantine measures. These are countries that have experienced intertwined conflict and brutal civil wars in the last 20 years. All of them were on the road to economic recovery through positive gains. Now, all of that has been erased. When people have no means to earn a living and live in constant fear of contracting a deadly disease, the results could be alarming. This combination could spark new violence and reignite grudges long buried.

In the U.S. and Europe, a 24-hour news cycle has made news stories constant and glorified. Reporters are incessantly digging for new angles and breaking news to drive ratings. In this case, the media needs to use restraint and remember what they were taught in journalism school, report the news, don’t invent it. Not saying that much of the news to hit the airwaves is irresponsible journalism, only that news outlets need to show restraint when using fear mongering or sensationalism to embellish the story. Fear from Ebola could cause people to do things they normally would not.

Also, do not forget the political aspect of Ebola. Rush Limbaugh recently admitted to playing into people’s fears in order to help GOP candidates win the mid-term elections. Using people’s fear to push a political agenda when over 4,000 people have perished from Ebola is appalling, but clearly not outside of the morals of some media members.

With globalization a new reality, travel has made it almost inevitable that the virus would spread outside of West Africa. However, just because a few people have contracted the virus on American soil does not necessarily mean that a national epidemic is forthcoming. Don’t get me wrong, Ebola is a global health issue and it needs to be contained before it hits the 10,000 per week doomsday scenario. However, the responsible thing to do is listen to the experts and make sure that educating and informing people does not morph into frightening them. Ebola can be effectively contained and destroyed, it has been before, but this will take a global effort without sending panic throughout the population. Because when the masses react from fear, collateral damage usually accompanies it.



Daniel Donovan

Daniel is the Executive Director of a non-profit development organization that focuses on building infrastructure and training in rural Sub-Saharan Africa called the African Community Advancement Initiative ( . He has a Master's degree graduate in International Relations with an emphasis on conflict resolution and development in Sub-Saharan Africa. Coupled with his extensive financial background, Daniel also works as a consultant for Consultancy Africa Intelligence in Pretoria and the Centre for Global Governance and Public Policy in Abu Dhabi. In addition to his work at FPA, he is also a regular contributor to The Continent Observer and International Policy Digest. He currently resides in Denver, CO.