Today’s Los Angeles Times front page headline is “Latest Ebola case raises U.S. anxiety.” That makes a total of two cases. Hardly an epidemic. The news media loves to beat a story to death. CNN is especially good at this kind of “reporting.” They offered 24 hour a day coverage of the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. That reporting continued until ratings dropped off. Aren’t we all to blame?
As expressed in The Weekly Sift
From googling around and talking with my wife (who specializes in risk management), I’ve concluded that risk theorists do a bad job coming up with catchy names for common fallacies. Let me suggest that the principle in the opening quote be called “the Ebola fallacy”. (If you already know a name for this, please leave a comment.)
Wednesday was the first time a person died of Ebola in the United States. Thomas Duncan (who flew here from Liberia) was also the first person diagnosed with Ebola in the United States. (The handful of previous cases were Americans who contracted the disease in Africa, were diagnosed there, and returned to the U.S. for treatment.) Sunday, we got the first report of someone catching Ebola in this country: one of the people who treated Duncan at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas.
This is about what you’d expect from a hard-to-catch disease like Ebola. As CDC Director Tom Frieden explained: “Ebola has been in existence for decades—and has predominantly infected remote areas lacking basic health infrastructure.”
And yet, from the public reaction you’d think Ebola was the biggest health problem in the country. It’s all over the news. Lakeland Industries, which makes hazmat suits, has seen its stock soar 160% this month. Republican political candidates are citing the Ebola threat to support clamping down on the Mexican border. (So far there have been no Ebola cases in Central America. But when Republicans think about disease-carriers, Hispanics leap to mind.) And three Democrats joined 24 Republican members of Congress in calling for banning travelers from western Africa, and possibly quarantining Americans for three weeks after they return from western Africa .
And that’s just the reaction from people who are trying to look respectable. The conspiracy theorists are going completely crazy. “The CDC is working with Border Patrol authorities and the Department of Homeland Security to disappear potential Ebola victims attempting to cross the border into the United States.”
Meanwhile, about 700 Americans die in traffic accidents each week.
Want to be safer and live longer? Use seat belts. Don’t smoke. Don’t drink and drive. Eat better. Get the sleep you need. Exercise regularly. And if you need any additional motivation not to touch the bodily fluids of people who are visibly ill, maybe then you should think about Ebola. But stop obsessing about distant-but-horrible threats that have almost no chance of affecting you.