The United States has been gripped in a state of Ebola panic of late. First, a man in Dallas was discovered to be carrying a virus. Then a nurse in Spain became the first person to contract the disease outside of Africa. And now everyone is freaking the heck out.
You’ve got a lot of people imagining films like Outbreak or 12 Monkeys are becoming a reality. An even jumpier and slightly less rational crowd may be thinking 28 Days Later is becoming a reality. Still others are insisting that this is all the fault of the Obama administration, which, really, at this point, you have to admire those folks for their consistency if nothing else. It must be nice to know that you’ll know who’s at fault for anything that happens before you know what’s happened.
But here’s the thing, folks, and this is really important so lean in real close to read this next part: you are not going to get Ebola.
What’s more, the fact that you’re capable of getting this worried about Ebola while completely ignoring a whole slew of other very real threats that lack the sort of sizzle an infectious disease that might make you bleed from the eyes is a big part of why we, as a society, are unable to tackle the biggest problems we face.
Ebola Does Not Represent a Threat to Americans and Probably Never Will
It’s not hard to see why people are afraid. Ebola is frequently fatal and unquestionably an extremely painful and tragic way to die.
But here’s the thing: it’s not particularly contagious. It’s not airborne. The only way you can contract the disease is through contact with bodily fluids from someone showing symptoms. Which means, even if a number of cases popped up here in the United States, the likelihood of them spreading would be extremely limited.
“But why is it spreading so fast in West Africa?!” Because the nations in which it’s spreading are the ones that lack a strong health care infrastructure to help isolate the virus’ carriers. There’s very little risk provided you can identify carriers and isolate their bodily fluids, but there’s plenty there if you can’t.
As Vox.com points out, a comparison of the different neighboring African nations and how they’ve dealt with the crisis should make this clear. Ezra Klein points out that Nigeria; which spends about three times as much on health care per capita as Guinea, 50% more than Liberia, and close to twice what Senegal spends; isolated cases of Ebola early and prevented them from spreading. The United States, meanwhile, spends almost 100 times as much per capita as Nigeria.
Between the CDC, carefully protected water supplies, relatively superb sanitation, a reliable police force, and the world’s most developed (and most expensive) health care system, the United States is going to contain any outbreak of the virus at the earliest stages. And that’s assuming there is one, which is itself a pretty ridiculous idea given that the disease, to this point, has always been almost entirely contained to West Africa. The current outbreak represents the first time even a smattering of cases have existed outside of the African continent and haven’t spread.
No, Ebola does not present a real risk to the United States. Even if it did, we’re prepared to deal with it appropriately. However, the hysteria surrounding the disease despite it being a non-issue for the country is a great example of how America (and, to be fair, a lot of other countries) doesn’t understand risk.
Perception of Risk vs. Reality and How That Ends Up Screwing Us
The way Americans tend to react to risk and why it’s deeply flawed is perfectly encapsulated, as so many parts of American life have been, in an episode of The Simpsons. The opening of the episode features a bear wandering into town out of the hills and, despite the bear not actually threatening anyone, it prompts a panicked response from the community and leads them to march down to the mayor’s office to demand that he do something.1
Unfortunately, while exaggerated for comedy’s sake, the portrayal of the basic reaction to a perceived risk that sparks the imagination isn’t far off. One bear wanders into town and everyone freaks out despite it not representing a substantial risk. They’ll continue driving their car to work every day despite the fact that it’s much more likely to be what kills them. It’s a routine and it’s easy not to think about. Getting mauled by a bear is extremely rare, but it’s not hard to attach a lot of violent, disturbing imagery to, so that’s what people will fixate on.
You can even extend that one further. It’s not uncommon when discussing the potential for self-driving cars in the relatively near future for people to insist that they would never use one. “What if the computer goes screwy? I wouldn’t want to be stuck in a car that just goes driving into an intersection on its own without me being able to control it! Can you imagine?”
Sure, we can imagine. That sounds terrifying. It’s also a pretty ridiculous take on things. Not so much that it’s impossible that a self-driving car could malfunction, but that you’re a good enough driver to actually reduce your risk of death or injury by taking the wheel. I hate to break it to you, but you’re not that good of a driver. Compared to other people, you might be great, but compared to a computer you’re not going to be. Humans are prone to error and/or distraction in a way a self-driving car simply wouldn’t be. The odds of you malfunctioning vastly exceed that of any hypothetical computer car.
But, despite this, the idea of being in a car you don’t control and having it go Hal from 2001: A Space Odyssey is terrifying. The emotional response to that imagined threat leads one to completely overlook the very real, daily threat you’re already subjected to. In fact, I’d guess that plenty of people who wouldn’t use a self-driving car would get into a car driven by another person without giving it a second thought.
We Need to Confront Real Issues, Not Just Scary Ones
On some level, this isn’t a huge deal. People getting afraid of spiders is annoying, but hardly worth getting too worked up over. However, it becomes a bigger issue when public policy is affected. Because there are any number of very real, very direct threats to our safety or prosperity that aren’t getting their due.
Take a look at gun violence. Incidents like Sandy Hook are horrifying, grabbing the national consciousness and resulting in calls for change. After Sandy Hook, a number of voices called for a ban on assault rifles or large-capacity magazines as those both played a key role in the massacre.
But a closer look at gun violence in this country paints a different picture. There are about 9,000 homicides committed with guns in an average year in this country, a number that is both staggeringly high and way below the historic peak in the early 1980s-1990s. Of those, some 350 or so are committed with rifles, a figure that represents less than 5% of the total and includes plenty of the non-assault variety of rifle. In fact, it’s typically way less than the number of murder committed with blunt objects. It’s also worth noting that in 2013, a year that saw an astonishing spike in the number of mass shootings, 182 people were killed in mass shootings. So about 2% of total homicides committed with guns.
Push comes to shove, the immediate and horrifying nature of the news of a mass shooting gets people’s attention and creates action, but that’s not because mass shootings represent the greatest threat. Of those 9,000 or so homicides each year, about 6,000 of them are committed with hand guns. In fact, a huge portion of all homicides in America are committed by urban youths who live in impoverished inner-city neighborhoods with extremely limited economic and educational opportunities. But when was the last time we’ve seen a push to improve the quality of life in impoverished American city centers that matches the push for a relatively useless ban on high-capacity magazines and/or assault rifles that came in the wake of Sandy Hook?
On the whole, it’s not hard to make the argument that the specter of insane, disturbed people armed with assault rifles has led many to overlook the far, far greater quantity of death and misery happening every single year in this country. Does the fact that it’s not happening in a large-enough, dramatic-enough single incident make it somehow less important? Any conversation about reducing gun deaths in this country should really be focused on handguns and/or urban poverty, but these sorts of systemic, cyclical issues simply don’t capture people’s imagination.
They also don’t generate fear in people who live outside of the areas where this is an issue. No matter how much more likely it is that you’ll be killed by a handgun, the thought of a lunatic with an AR-15 shooting up your mall is made more real in people’s minds no matter how rare it really is.
Nuclear Power Could be Everyone’s Friend
Another example of how short-term irrational fears can prevent necessary attention from reaching important issues can be found with nuclear power.
Nuclear power is the source of a great deal of concern from a large portion of the population. Images of radiation burns and Hiroshima are reminders of just how powerful it is. It’s precisely the sort of threat that’s difficult to quantify, unseen and unheard but deadly nonetheless. As a result, there was a collective pants-crapping on much of social media over the potential for radiation Fukushima’s nuclear disaster to reach America’s west coast. This was, of course, an utterly absurd idea for anyone with any familiarity with the science of radiation or, you know, the size of the Pacific Ocean.
The actual threat to the average American from nuclear power plants is essentially nothing. It could be if there was ever a reduction in the iron-clad regulations applied by the Nuclear Regulatory Agency, but, for the time being, that particular organization does a fantastic job. Know how many American civilians have been exposed to unsafe levels of radiation on account of a leak at a nuclear plant? That would be zero. That’s right. People’s fears about radiation creates a perception that any incident is dangerous, but the reality is that the nuclear industry is tightly regulated and has done a bang-up job of keeping us safe.
Worried about a Fukushima here in America? Sure, why not? In the event of an American nuclear plant getting hit by a 9.0 magnitude quake immediately followed by a 40-foot tall tsunami, an event virtually unprecedented in human history prior to 2011, it does seem possible that a dangerous but geographically limited radiation release could happen. Granted, it will probably amount to less than the radiation exposure that comes from living in Denver year-round, but let’s not let that keep us from freaking out.
The reason it’s worth mentioning all this is because nuclear power represents a huge, massive upgrade in terms of environmental damage over the coal-, oil-, and natural gas-fired power plants that currently supply the vast majority of our electricity. The damage being done is incremental, but it’s a lot more when taken cumulatively. The issue is that it doesn’t present that potential for the singular, catastrophic failure that exists (at least in people’s minds) with nuclear power.
Meanwhile, the pending humanitarian disaster created by global warming goes largely unchecked year after year. We’re essentially ignoring an extremely viable alternative to the fossil fuel-based system that stands to cripple the economy over the next century because the technology that could be a big part of a solution gives some people the willies. The abstract fear of a radiation release is proving more powerful than the completely rational fear that we’re altering our climate in irreparable ways that could have huge consequences.
There are certainly plenty of issues with nuclear power, including the failure of the nation to create a comprehensive system for dealing with nuclear waste. However, that issue in and of itself is another sign of how irrational fears can often lead one to overlook real threats. It’s virtually impossible to find a community willing to let trains transport nuclear waste through them let alone ones willing to allow a long-term storage facility be constructed nearby. Again, people’s irrational fears of radiation are the root cause. Meanwhile, the system for storing nuclear waste lacks a coordinated, organized, long-term solution, creating a lot more risk than the waste alone would with an appropriate reaction.
Other Diseases Are Way Worse Than Ebola
Circling back to Ebola, the focus on Ebola in West Africa is warranted. It’s a humanitarian disaster that requires action to stop the spread of the disease.
But is it the deadliest disease in the region? No, not by a long shot.
There are a number of much more common diseases that, while offering lower fatality rates, infect so many more people that they ultimately claim many more victims. The current Ebola outbreak, the worst ever by any measure, has resulted in 8,000 people infected by the disease and over 3,500 deaths to date. However, there are over 200 million cases of malaria each year that results in over 500,000 fatalities, 90% of which happen in sub-Saharan Africa and are predominately young children.
And this is all the more insane when one considers the fact that malaria is treatable and preventable. Estimates place the portion of children in sub-Saharan Africa that sleep under a mosquito net each night at under 5%, making this an imminently solvable problem with the appropriate resources.
So why hasn’t Malaria, a disease that kills over 100 times more people each year than the worst Ebola outbreak ever has thus far, gotten anywhere close to the level of attention that this current Ebola outbreak has? Because it’s an easier story to tell. Ebola is terrifying and relatively unknown while malaria is a common foe that humans have battled for centuries. At the end of the day, it’s hard not to believe that this obsession with the novel is causing us to completely overlook a massive, preventable humanitarian disaster that affects millions of people on a daily basis, year in year out.
It’s not just malaria, either. Pneumonia, a disease all but wiped out by vaccinations in the United States, is still the world’s leading killer of children and claims 1.1 million lives each year. Tuberculosis kills another 1.3 million. In each case, while not capable of creating the sort of Hollywood-style drama of brain hemorraghes and bleeding out the eyes, these diseases have drastic consequences and, quite frankly, warrant the sort of attention every year that Ebola is getting now.
Also, not to beat a fat horse, but how many of the very same people who are expressing real fear about Ebola in the United States are also deep in a lifestyle that dramatically increases their risk factors for heart disease? You know, the leading cause of death in the United States claiming about 600,000 lives a year? Because if your fear of Ebola is resulting in you lashing out at all things West African but not killing your appetite enough to keep you from eating that cheeseburger, you may have a really unproductive attitude when it comes to what you should really be afraid of.
Letting Your Imagination Run Wild is One Thing, but Bring It Back to Earth Afterwards
So I’m not saying that an emotional reaction to these things isn’t warranted. We should get emotional. It’s natural, it’s human. We should be terrified by Ebola. We should desperately want to do whatever it takes to make events like Sandy Hook never happen again. We should approach nuclear energy with an appropriate level of caution.
However, it’s possible that, if the immediate emotional response is the only one we have, we’re in serious danger of becoming like the residents of Springfield strong-arming their mayor into reacting to the isolated bear incident. In and of itself, that’s not a huge issue. But if marching down to City Hall to insist on an expensive bear patrol means that you’re not repairing the aging and decrepit dam above the town or repairing that rickety bridge, it’s a pretty serious issue.
Taking a step back to shoot for objective and rational thought in the aftermath of that emotional reaction is really important. It’s not always possible to produce said rationality and objectivity as, again, we’re all human, but making an effort can go a long way.
So, the next time you’re struck by a deep fear of an external threat you don’t completely understand, maybe take a breath and consider how the risk factors stack up when compared to all of the ones you tacitly accept over the course of your day. Because you might get shot by a handgun, there’s a distinct chance that you’ll die in a car accident, your diet may be the biggest threat to your life of any risk factor, and we’re definitely all in the process of creating a massive ecological and humanitarian disaster for our grandchildren through global warming; but you are definitely NOT going to get Ebola.
1 It’s episode 23 from season 7, entitled “Much Apu About Nothing.” The new, massive bear patrol results in a tax increase and prompts another angry mob descending on the Mayor’s office and Mayor Quimby, exhausted by his dim-witted constituents, states that “Ducking this issue is going to require real leadership” and blames all of their problems on illegal immigrants. Quimby schedules a vote on a ballot proposition to deport all of the town’s illegal immigrants prompting Apu, the local grocery store clerk, then has to get his citizenship to avoid deportation over the course of the episode. Really great episode, total classic.