Politics & Policy

There Is No Ebola ‘Hysteria’

There is no evidence that the public gave in to excessive concern, let alone panic.

‘We can’t give in to hysteria or fear,” President Obama announced in his weekly radio address this weekend, “because that only makes it harder to get people the accurate information they need.”

The least accurate part of the president’s message was the one part nearly everybody of every political stripe agrees to be true: that the United States last week was in the grip of a panic that was just days or hours away from metastasizing into a mania.

In fact, there is absolutely no evidence that most, or a majority, or a large minority, or even a swing vote’s worth of Americans were unduly agitated about the unprecedented outbreak of the deadly hemorrhagic-fever virus. The only meaningful indicator of a public panic over contagion — public travel, air travel in particular — has not budged. All other evidence cited appears to be anecdotal — and even many of the anecdotes are explicable.

The establishment’s widespread claims of a public “frenzy” or “panic” or “epidemic of fear” (those are not scare quotes; all nouns and compound nouns have appeared in the destination media since Sunday) cannot be considered a libel against the American public, because in practice libel laws do not apply to comments made about groups of 25 or more people. It is also true that at least 25 people — nearly all of them in government or mainstream media, but also a few who have gladdened our hearts through phunny photos of biohazard homespun — have exhibited both projectile bloviation and explosive diarrhea of the mouth.

Yet according to the country’s second-largest airline, there has been no panic over the largest Ebola outbreak in world history and the first known human-to-human Ebola transmissions within the Lower 48.

“We have not seen a change at all in our bookings,” a Delta Airlines media representative tells National Review Online. During an earnings conference last week, Glen W. Hauenstein, Delta’s executive vice president for network planning and revenue management, was asked about ticket purchases since the late Thomas Eric Duncan was reported with Ebola on September 30. Hauenstein replied, “We monitor it on a daily basis and we have not seen any changes in the booking trends.”

While company officers are not sworn in during investor conferences, their statements subject them to professional and legal liability that does not apply when broadcasters or politicians speak publicly. The other major U.S. carriers report earnings later this week and would not comment on passenger traffic. A representative of Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (Duncan arrived in the United States at Dulles International Airport during his journey from Liberia to Dallas via Belgium) noted that passenger traffic traditionally declines in autumn. The authority’s most recent traffic numbers go only through August.

Anecdotal evidence of a rash of Ebola-related school closings has also been raised. Three schools in Central Texas were closed for one day last week after students were found to have flown on the same flight with Ebola-infected nurse Amber Vinson. An elementary school and a middle school in Ohio shut down for two days because a staffer was on Vinson’s flight. Media coverage highlighted the excessive caution of school officials and quoted Ebola experts lamenting the brief window of freedom afforded to children in those institutions. But no larger rash of closings or even extra sanitary precaution at schools — which are famously active avenues of transmission for all manner of communicable disease — ever materialized. More Texas schools were closed owing to severe storms earlier this month than were shuttered during the alleged Ebola panic.

Reporters in search of Ebolamania have ventured as far afield as America’s bridal shops, following the closing and sterilization of a shop in Ohio that Vinson visited after her initial fever symptoms arose. Yet this panic too has failed to occur. Stephen Lang, president of the American Bridal and Prom Industry Association, tells National Review Online there has been “zero impact” on the industry. “That store [in Ohio] is a very good store,” Lang says. “They will be back up and running. But it really hasn’t affected the industry. If the disease becomes pandemic it will effect not just this industry but every industry across the world. But it was just a single incident.”

Into this echoing absence of hysteria, a thousand voices have shouted for reason. In the Washington Post, columnist Steven Petrow declared that “fearbola” was “all too reminiscent of the stigmatization, dread of contagion and panic of the early years of HIV/AIDS.” Other cool heads have taken up that theme and given post-mortem kicks to Ronald Reagan, who was president when AIDS was identified. During a full-Ginsburg tour of Sunday talk shows, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, repeatedly voiced concerns about public overreactions and the need to maintain appearances of strict bio-containment precautions only for “public relations . . . appearances.” In an excellent and thorough piece on the contagion, the Washington Post’s Joel Achenbach and Brady Dennis provided ample specific detail about known qualities of the disease, but when addressing the alleged panic they slipped into unattributable prose poetry about the “jangled nerves of Americans who fear the virus will spread like dandelion seeds in the wind” and vague quotes from experts about what “people think” of Ebola. These were small details in a larger, newsier story, but the undeterred copy desk slapped the headline “CONTAGION OF FEAR” atop the page-one story.

In a separate piece focused specifically on the supposed panic, the Post got an official at the walk-in clinic chain AFC/Doctors Express to cite “eight to 10 ‘false alarms.’” AFC has more than 130 clinics and it has been three weeks since the Duncan story broke. At worst, there have been ten false alarms over 1,950 business-days of operation by AFC clinics. 


“Our ‘false alarms’ have been mainly driven by patients who believed they had been exposed to a person who had recently travelled to one of the West African nations (Sierre Leone, Guinea, Liberia) experiencing the Ebola outbreak,” Dr. Glenn Harnett, AFC’s chief medical officer, tells National Review Online. “In each case we followed our protocols and notified the local health department and authorities and were able to determine in each instance that there had not been any true exposure. Most of these were due to the patients being unsure which country the person they thought they had been exposed to had actually been. So far, all the ‘false alarms’ had actually been around someone that had been in another nation in Africa where there is currently no outbreak. We have also had several patients (not a significant number) who want to be ‘tested’ ‘just to be sure’ they don’t have the virus even though they have no history of a real exposure.  We have been able to successfully educate those patients that testing for Ebola is not medically indicated or necessary.”

Harnett tells NRO that AFC expects to see more than one million patients this year. Ten false alarms throughout all of the company’s clinics means 0.00001 percent of its patient visits have involved Ebola hypochondriacs. 

The most lauded of the anti-panic outbreaks was a pan-galactic call for calm by Fox News anchorman Shepard Smith. Smith, noting that tens of thousands of Americans die of flu each year, implored the masses to let their better angels take flight by not listening to “the hysterical voices on the radio and the television” and avoiding the “fear-provoking words that are being written online.” Smith’s address was as boring as a dish of marshmallow ambrosia, and about as nutritious. Inevitably, it went mega-viral. Liberals in particular flipped for Smith’s blandishments, which they viewed as an insider’s rebuke to the “right-wing conservoverse.” As of this writing, Huffington Post’s clip of Smith’s speech is the No. 1 Google video result for “Shepard Smith,” with clips of the speech from a Denver Fox affiliate and CNN’s Brian Stelter placing and showing, respectively.

As the American people have continued to test negative for Ebola panic, media have been forced to break out their microscopes and look for asymptomatic evidence of microagressions or racial stigmatization. An expert at the U.K. Guardian determines that Americans are panicking over “Fear of a black patient,” and the Washington Post spoke with a Liberia-born reverend of a church in Beltsville, Md., who noted that some members of the congregation declined to stay for a meal after a recent groundbreaking ceremony and that “folks gradually started . . . moving away” from his wife during a hospital visit.

National Review Online caught up with the Reverend Oliver Lloyd of Beltsville’s Whosoever Will Christian Church. Lloyd clarifies that the worries demonstrated by members of his church — whose congregation is majority black — were not racial in origin. “It’s strictly based on nationality,” Lloyd says. “We have people from the affected countries, but they have been here longer than ten or eleven months. But people are afraid they might have a friend or relative residing with them who just got here recently.” (The World Health Organization reports that Ebola has an incubation period of 21 days.) Lloyd adds that the congregation includes “people from different nationalities,” including other Liberians.

Though the Post posited experiences like Lloyd’s as evidence that West Africans are being “ostracized,” he chalks it up to “a result of misinformation.”

Much of that misinformation has in fact been spewed by the very same public-health officials the paper credits with working to “quell public worries.” The fake Ebola panic is of a piece with the outbreak of Islamophobia and mob attacks against Arabs that failed to transpire, despite dire warnings from government and media, after 9/11. The same horror of the proletariat informed the ghastly misreporting of alleged civil mayhem in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. “The assumption that the public will panic . . . has been taken for granted in media and public policy discourses and is now even reflected in discussions among public health, homeland security, and emergency management professionals,” the authors of a 2006 study of misreporting on crime in the Superdome wrote in Annals of the American Academy. “These discourses often conflate the concept of panic with entirely normal and understandable public responses to risk and uncertainty, such as the upsurge of public information seeking in the 2001 anthrax attack.”

This can be restated in non-academic language. The American people do not get hysterical for the same reason that the one time you never see a road accident is when a power outage takes out all the traffic lights. It is in the nature of citizens of a free and market-based society to be cooperative and rational. One day there will be another panic about Ebola or some other ailment. The same establishment experts will fume about the risk of public hysteria and fret over the burden of managing information in ways that do not cause panic in the streets. And again, the public will not panic, because it’s the experts you have to worry about.

Now take a deep breath, and pray for Tori Spelling.

Update: This article has been updated after publication to include a quote from an official at AFC/Doctors Express. 

— Tim Cavanaugh is news editor of National Review Online. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.


The Latest