Can the Boston Marathon Aftermath Help Explain Ebola Panic?

A New York Times article explored how panic in the wake of a terrorist attack parallels America's Ebola scares.

Associated Press

Associated Press

Can lessons from the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings explain Americans’ panicked responses to the Ebola epidemic?

A New York Times article suggests as much. Monday, the Times reported on the “murky soup of understandable concern, wild misinformation, political opportunism and garden-variety panic” that has swept the United States despite just two cases of Ebola reported here. The reporter interviewed UC Irvine Psychology Professor Roxane Cohen Silver, author of a study released last year concluding that those who exposed themselves to endless news coverage of the Boston Marathon bombing reported more acute stress symptoms than those who were present in Boston that day. The Times writes:

[F]ed by social media and the 24-hour news cycle, the first American experience with Ebola has become a lesson in the ways things that go viral electronically can be as potent and frightening as those that do so biologically. The result has ignited a national deliberation about the conflicts between public health interest, civil liberties and common sense.

“This is sort of comparable to when people were killed in terror attacks,” said Roxane Cohen Silver, a professor of psychology in the department of psychology and social behavior at the University of California, Irvine.

Silver’s paper showed that when people die in an act of terrorism, sometimes those who are watching on TV from afar end up with more stress symptoms than those who were nearby. It’s an interesting idea, that the stress people felt last spring might parallel the panic they are feeling today, thanks to Ebola. People have shown a tendency to personalize their own risk, despite little to no chance they have been exposed to someone sick with Ebola. The Times described a woman from Louisville, Kentucky, who resolved to leave her home as little as possible ever since hearing that a nurse from a Dallas hospital that treated an Ebola patient flew to Cleveland, 300 miles from her home. Closer to home, CBS News reports that a Maine schoolteacher attended a conference 10 miles from the Dallas hospital, and her school placed her on medical leave. (Ebola isn’t contagious until symptoms appear.)

Massachusetts has certainly mixed its share of “understandable concern” with “garden-variety panic” on the Ebola front in recent weeks. When a Haitian woman vomited on a T station platform, an onlooker called 9-1-1 to say that a “Liberian woman” might have Ebola. Train services between Ruggles and Back Bay had to be suspended.

There’s a cost to all this fear, as The New Yorker reported:

Fewer than a thousand people died in the 2003 SARS epidemic, but a report by the National Academy of Sciences notes that its cost to the global economy—not only in medical expenditures but in lost trade, productivity, and investment—was almost forty billion dollars.

Thus do officials spend almost as much time quelling unjustified panic as they do warning the public about Ebola’s actual risks. They’re combatting two kinds of viral contagion—the traditional and the digital. And just as we had a responsibility to report on the real threats that followed the Boston Marathon, and the public had an understandable interest in consuming that news, we now must find a balance between informing ourselves about Ebola and exaggerating its risks beyond their reality.