Ebola panic: who’s afraid of the stuff we should be afraid of?

A litany of dangers pose much greater long-term risks than the virus, from road deaths to antibiotic-resistant bugs, from air pollution to nuclear proliferation. Oddly, we’re inured to many of them

Crisis: an International Medical Corps clinic in Liberia. Photograph: Daniel Berehulak/New York Times

Crisis: an International Medical Corps clinic in Liberia. Photograph: Daniel Berehulak/New York Times

 

Almost as much coverage has been devoted recently to the panic surrounding Ebola as to the disease itself, with dramatic over-reactions highlighted and alarmist media coverage scrutinised. It’s as if the virus and its accompanying viral fear are two related symptoms of the same disease, both demanding diagnosis and a search for a cure.

In this newspaper on Monday Jennifer O’Connell painted a disturbing picture of the scaremongering seizing the US media, with pundits calling for flight bans and mass quarantining of African travellers.

On the other hand, the responsible coverage of the Ebola outbreak has brought us heartbreaking accounts of devastated communities in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia, as well as tales of medical staff risking their lives to help the afflicted.

The pieces that chilled me most, however, focused not on the victims but on institutional failures that have brought us to this point. An internal World Health Organisation report depicts an initial response crippled by cronyism, with heads of WHO country offices in Africa being “politically motivated appointments”.

Meanwhile, Dr Francis Collins, the head of the US biomedical agency the National Institutes of Health, described how years of budget cuts hindered progress on a vaccine.

“NIH has been working on Ebola vaccines since 2001, ” Collins told the Huffington Post. “Frankly, if we had not gone through our 10-year slide in research support, we probably would have had a vaccine in time for this that would’ve gone through clinical trials and would have been ready.”

Making a related point was Dr Seth Berkley, head of Gavi, a public-private global health partnership that leads the way in providing vaccines in developing countries.

The two vaccine candidates that “people are talking about now started 10 years ago”, Berkley told the Guardian. “But they weren’t started because of the problem in Africa, they were started because of a worry from wealthy countries about bioterrorism . . . The West’s interest in and fear of biological warfare has not sustained and has changed.”

These failures are grimly depressing, not merely because of all the death and suffering that could have been avoided but also because of what they say about our capacity, as a society, to control our fears.

It seems that the risk of Ebola-related bioterrorism demands a fully funded response when our fear of terrorism is at its height. But the risk of a natural outbreak of the same disease, leading to similar outcomes, demands no such funding.

And it highlights the limitations of our political systems to rationally weigh and respond to risks. We expect our governments to save us in an emergency, yet we continuously complaining about our taxes being wasted, particularly in areas of esoteric research.

Those pressures are particularly pronounced in the US, but the pattern is universal, and it encourages politicians to prepare only for emergencies.

But what is deemed to be an emergency is to a large degree defined by what scares us: a litany of dangers pose much greater long-term risks than Ebola. We are inured to many of them, from road deaths to antibiotic-resistant bugs, from air pollution to nuclear proliferation.

Our fears, then, are not natural or inevitable reactions to risk but are social constructs, malleable and easily manipulated.

Corey Robin, a US academic and author of Fear: The History of a Political Idea, pinpoints the way fear can be stoked: “In choosing, interpreting, and responding to these objects of fear, leaders are influenced by their ideological assumptions and strategic goals,” he writes.

“They view danger through a prism of ideas, which shapes whether they see a particular danger as threatening or not, and a lens of political opportunity, which shapes whether they see that danger as helpful or not.”

In that sense Ebola is even more frightening as a parable. It terrifies by showing us the brutal cost of what happens when bureaucracies become political tools, when our institutions become crippled by cronyism, when corners of the world are allowed to descend into interminable poverty and, above all, when we allow ourselves to be frightened of the wrong risks.

The Ebola outbreak shows that our global institutions are not very capable of protecting us from the risks we face until they have become emergencies. It is true of this outbreak, it was true of the global financial crash, it will be true of the environmental crisis we will face in the coming decades.

Franklin D Roosevelt’s adage that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself is superficially comforting and not without truth, but it was in itself an attempt to control fear for political purposes.

There is, alas, plenty to fear in this world, but all too often it’s not what we’re conditioned to be afraid of. Shane Hegarty is away

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