Don't Panic About Ebola—and Don't Panic About People Panicking Either

Public hysteria isn't the problem.


Galactic advice.

When the news broke yesterday that a man in Dallas had been diagnosed with Ebola, my colleague Ron Bailey delivered the news with some sensible advice: "Don't Panic!" He had plenty of company. Politico published a story headlined "Ebola's here: Don't panic." The Los Angeles Times explained "why you don't need to panic," and Business Insider told us "Why You Shouldn't Panic." Salon, uncharacteristically cautious, said "there's (probably) no reason to panic." And in Ebola's new home, The Dallas Morning News ran an item headlined "Why a positive Ebola test in Dallas is no cause for panic." I could go on, but you get the picture: The press is filled with people who don't want you to panic.

For the record, I don't want you to panic either. Even if I thought Ebola was going to spark a public health crisis in America, I wouldn't tell you to panic. Panic is always a bad idea, pretty much by definition. You shouldn't do it.

The most patronizing logo on television.

But while it's fine for the media to tell us not to panic about Ebola, let's bear in mind that the people most likely to panic about Ebola are the media. Everyday citizens tend to keep their heads in situations like this. As I wrote half a decade ago, when the purported panic on the horizon involved swine flu, "It's easy to find examples of public anxiety, with every hypochondriac in the country fretting that the cold his kid always catches this time of year was actually the killer flu. But panic? Where's the evidence of that?" Going through a series of stories that were supposed to show flu hysteria, I was underwhelmed. A Time feature, for example, had a headline that said a "swine flu panic" had hit Mexico, but the actual article didn't demonstrate that:

It tells us that many Mexicans donned facemasks, as recommended by their government; that stores quickly sold out of masks and vitamin supplements; that schools in Mexico City shut down; that some people left the city and others stayed put. In other words, it tells us that ordinary Mexicans were taking ordinary precautions. The Bild report merely informs us that a few schools in New York had closed and that many children displaying flu-like symptoms were sent home. The Guardian timeline includes a series of links to Mexican photographs that allegedly "capture the sense of panic everywhere." Click through, and you'll see pictures of people calmly going about their business while wearing masks. My favorite photo features a woman on a subway reading a newspaper, a vaguely bored look in her eyes. If this is panic, we need a new word for chaotic stampedes.

Still the go-to photo for anything involving the swine flu outbreak of '09.

Even the CNN story, which at least involves exaggerated worries and a potentially destructive diversion of resources, stops well short of describing a public panic. We learn that the number of patients at the emergency department at Chicago Children's Memorial Hospital more than doubled after the flu hit the news; we learn that some hospitals in California set up triage tents to separate the sick from the merely anxious. We learn nothing about people storming ERs, fighting each other for dwindling medical supplies, or acting in anything other than an orderly way.

"People are sharing information, they're seeking out information, they're asking questions about whether or not they have the symptoms," says Jeannette Sutton, a researcher at the Natural Hazards Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder. "Those are not incidents of panic or hysteria. That's rational thinking, where people are asking questions and trying to make decisions based on the information they have available to them."

When I distinguish anxiety from panic, I'm not just splitting hairs. The fear of panic—actual panic—has shaped public policy in unfortunate ways. During a disaster, it's not uncommon for officials to hold useful information close to their vests because they don't want to "spread panic," even though nine decades of research have established that the public almost always remains calm in such a crisis….Now imagine if those officials instead argued that they should hold back important information because they don't want to "spread anxiety." Their position would sound absurd. Nothing fans anxieties like a dearth of solid information, and nothing resolves anxiety like concrete data.

Yes, "panic" is a flexible word. I myself use it rather broadly when the subject is a so-called moral panic, trusting readers to understand that the phrase is a metaphor. But let's be clear about what social threats (as opposed to medical threats) should worry us. In Dallas right now, the chances that people will start stampeding in the streets is far, far smaller than the chances that scare-mongering coverage will make it harder to get good information.

In that spirit, I appreciate all those don't-panic pieces. I just hope they're being read in the rest of the newsroom.

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  1. let’s bear in mind that the people most likely to panic about Ebola are the media

    Well, the government wants you to panic and the media are the mouthpieces for the government, so PANIC NOW SO THAT WE CAN SAVE YOU!

      1. Ah, Vox, the folks who said there was only an 18% chance of Ebola reaching the US. Oops.

  2. I’m not sure we can still say that Ebola is contained. If it was contained wouldn’t it still be only in Africa?

    I’m also not sure we can say there hasn’t been an outbreak in the US. We have a guy who (a) is infected, and (b) wandered around, symptomatic/infectious, for at least a couple of days. The first alone counts, in my book, but with the second, at a minimum its premature to say there’s been no outbreak.

    1. The first alone counts, in my book

      Well, he seems to have caught it in Africa, so I wouldn’t say there’s been an outbreak in the US unless he transmitted the disease to someone else here. As of yet, we don’t have word that he did.

    2. We need to wait until late October (after the incubation period from his wandering around) to know if anyone else was infected.

      1. Uh, 21 days is the maximum (observed) time for symptoms to appear. They can appear in as little as 2 days.

    3. I wonder what percentage of the children crossing the border from Mexico is from one of the countries that are having the Ebola outbreaks?

      I would think it would be pretty low, but if it’s even a small percentage it could be a problem, since the government is shipping these kids all around the country.

      1. It’s tragic to see Kultur War veterans suffering from PTSD.

          1. The recent influx of immigrant children came from Mexico and Central American countries where the incidence of Ebola is zero or less.

            The only connection between the two stories is in the fevered imaginations of witless xenophobes who see the machinations of the BrownHordes in every bad thing that happens.

            1. So, I’m suddenly a kulture warring xenophobe because I brought up a question?

              There are actually others crossing the border that are not from Central America, so it’s a legitimate question. I don’t have any idea of the answer, but it’s still a legit question. It’s no different than some people asking if radical Islamists could be using the border situation to gain access. Maybe that’s totally not worth worrying about either, but it’s still a legit question.

              I’m pro-immigration. I’m married to an immigrant and most of my friends are immigrants or foreign nationals. Maybe you didn’t know that, but your sudden assumption that I’m some sort of xenephobic bigot is totally without founding or substance.

              1. It’s a fair question. And not one where it is safe to assume that the questioner is anti immigration. Far more open borders would probably reduce the danger there quite a bit if you could screen for diseases at legitimate border crossings.

                1. Far more open borders would probably reduce the danger there quite a bit if you could screen for diseases at legitimate border crossings.

                  And what would the people do who couldn’t make it through those legitimate border crossings with their screening? Wouldn’t they just do what they already do – that is – just sneak across at illegitimate crossings?

            2. The recent influx of immigrant children came from Mexico and Central American countries where the incidence of Ebola is zero or less.

              True, those countries only have drug-resistant TB, scabies, chicken pox, and MRSA, all of which have been seen in illegal immigrant kids. Oh, and look, there are outbreaks of enterovirus 68 (found in Guatemala) all over the country, after the kids were shipped everywhere! What a coincidence!

      2. I’m about a million times more worried about people with Ebola arriving legally on airplanes than someone sneaking in from Mexico. And I’m not very worried.

        1. I’m not too worried either, just curious if it could happen.

          1. I bet more Canadians can afford the travel that would make them infectious than Mexicans or especially Central America refugees.

            1. Yes, but I’m not talking about Central Americans crossing. I have heard that some percentage of those crossing are from other continents.

    4. I’m not sure we can still say that Ebola is contained. If it was contained wouldn’t it still be only in Africa?

      “Oh, very well. It’s contained to Africa and the United States.”

      (Feel free to jump in with “The Spanish Inquisition” skit as needed.)

      1. Didn’t some aid workers fly back to the EU for treatment?

        1. “Contained to Africa, the United States, and the EU!”

          1. At least the Earth is vacuum-sealed for the rest of the universe’s protection.

            1. “Breaking News: Mars Lander Assembly Worker Had Ebola”

              1. This is how War of the Worlds gets started.

                1. and ends.

                  *alien cough*

                  1. That’s right, but it might be better to avoid the wholesale destruction of the Northeastern U.S., though, come to think of it, Florida is untouched in The War of the Worlds, isn’t it?

                  2. Aliens do not “cough” – they utter a high pitched squeal reminiscient of an orgasmic elephant.

      2. I think the “The Only Thing we have to fear is fear itself” skit from Robot Chicken would be more applicable.

  3. Is global warming to blame for ebola?

    1. Fuck me. I googled it, and yes, apparently so.

    2. The Koch brothers are literally murdering millions as we speak.

      1. And for ISIS too.

        1. I read all about it in the AM Links?

      1. Well, if there were no humans in Africa, there would have been no outbreak, so I suppose the answer is “yes.”

    3. Is global warming to blame for ebola?

      No, everybody knows that ebola is a secret CIA plot to destabilize completely irrelevant and economically unimportant African countries.

      You know, just cus’.

  4. When the media–usually the source of panic–is suddenly saying ‘don’t panic’………you sorta feel uneasy.

    1. And if they start saying “All is well!” *then* panic!

      1. They are a good reverse indicator.

    2. I was thinking the same thing. Also, don’t think about the number 5.

  5. How about people who have never set foot in Texas blow it out their ass and stop telling me how I should react to something that both the CDC and POTUS said would NOT happen?

    1. “Would you swear on your mother’s life that a non-symptomatic ebola victim is no danger to others?”

      1. “Airborne — all the way!”

    2. Do viruses work differently in Texas or something? Or do Texans possess some secret knowledge that they aren’t sharing with the rest of us?

      1. We do possess secret knowledge, but it has nothing to do with viruses. It involves livestock and is none of your goddamn business.

        /throws dart at picture of Lincoln on wall/

      2. My point was that jackasses in safe zones around the country are telling people in non-safe zones how to behave. It’s a little different if you have a loved one that was at the hospital at the time of this guy’s admittance than if you’re a reporter typing on your computer in California.

  6. The Los Angeles Times explained “why you don’t need to panic,”

    because Dallas is not in Los Angeles?

    1. Because all the people are moving from California to Texas, so those left behind are not at risk

  7. I haven’t paid any attention to it, but what is the non-human vector? Monkey? Biting flies?

      1. You send me a 15 year old web-link? Do you have any turn of the 19th century phrenology books about it too? (Just kidding, it is an interesting idea, but I’m safe because I use blunt instruments when the bats get too close.

        1. Here’s a more recent link. I’m safe because I eat fruit only indoors.

          1. Uh huh, what now smart guy?

            1. The horror ….

      1. SO the ice melts, then Earth’s gravity gets weaker, allowing for easier bat to human to human transmission.

        1. Yes. And note how climate change now has become gravity change. AGW: Anthropogenic Gravity Weakening.

          1. If we could harness our newfound power to change gravity think of all the advances we’d make in space travel!

              1. If we can negate gravity, there would be room to put amenities on the ship, since the space needed for fuel would be trivial relative to now.

        2. SO the ice melts, then Earth’s gravity gets weaker

          Why? Melting wouldn’t change the mass.

  8. Pretty much every EOTW movie ever made features a Top Man saying, “We can’t tell the people what’s really happening, they’ll panic.” Then they cut away to riots and looting.

    1. I haven’t worried this much about being nuked since the cold war.

    2. “We can’t tell the people what’s really happening, they might realize there’s no need to panic and then we’d lose our jobs and wouldn’t be able to bust out our riot gear.”

  9. Panic is always a bad idea, pretty much by definition. You shouldn’t do it.


    I think you need to define what panic is.

    I mean if I was going to panic about Ebola I think I would wear a mask and carry around those sanitary disinfectant napkins and use them to open doors. Maybe stock up on a few gallons of water and cans of soup.

    Seriously what harm would panic do?

    1. Real wrath of God type stuff. Fire and brimstone coming down from the skies! Rivers and seas boiling! Forty years of darkness! Earthquakes, volcanoes. . .the dead rising from the grave! Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together. . .mass hysteria!

      1. I don’t believe you’re seriously considering listening to this man!

          1. It is true, this man has no dick.

            1. I’m gonna buy him a nice fruit basket.

    2. Panic is always a bad idea, pretty much by definition. You shouldn’t do it.

      When you’re out of good ideas and death seems immanent, try something completely crazy! If it didn’t work on balance panic would’ve been bred out of us.

      1. To be sure, evolution doesn’t necessarily result in optimal features all of the time. Panic-driven survival a million years ago doesn’t necessarily translate into survival today. One does not simply run from Ebola, after all.

    3. Seriously what harm would panic do?

      Spread it more widely.

    4. I think you need to define what panic is.

      Panic is, by definition, hysterical and irrational. So any reasonable response to a health threat is, again by definition, not panic.

      1. Panic can work when your group is being attacked by, say, a lion, provided that you couple panic with elusiveness greater than that of at least one other in your group. It’s less effective in situations where immediate screaming flight is suboptimal.

        1. But wouldn’t it still be better to run from the lion without panicking? I guess we are back to definitions. I wouldn’t say that the fight or flight response is necessarily a state of panic. And I agree with Jesse that it is always hysterical and irrational.

          1. I dunno, why do we panic, then? I’m saying lions.

            1. Because the risks of what you blunder into are less than the risks of being overrun, so the system shuts down the higher functions that would pay attention to where you were going and focus on raw fleeing speed.

              1. Given that our rationality seems to fail in groups, perhaps we should just panic more often.

            2. Why do we get depressed and have anxiety attacks? Those seem like very useless and negative features of our psychology.

              I may be coming around to what you are saying. I find the idea appealing that a lot of our psychological disorders are sort of misdirected things that would have been useful for people living in a more primitive state. Anxiety is useful if there is a lion around who might eat you. But it is supposed to go away when the threat is removed. Maybe panic is supposed to be a momentary emotional reaction to tell you to get moving. But if you continue to panic, you are going to do something stupid.

              1. I don’t think it’s all that simple or that we are, as a group, that hardwired, but some of our behaviors are surely connected to traits that helped us survive over the millions of years we were functioning sans much technology.

      2. I saw some health official at the press conference assuring us that our disease protocol will not allow this to spread. Unmentioned is that the two U.S. health workers who were diagnosed in Liberia somehow caught this virus while wearing biohazard Tyvek suits and following the same protocol.

        1. Not to worry, I’m sure the dogfuckers at the CDC won’t accidentally leave Ebola lying around or send still virulent samples through standard mail.

        2. And note that this guy from Liberia went to a hospital that had been briefed on Ebola symptoms, apparently told them he had just been in Liberia, and they sent him home with some antibiotics. Oops.

    5. Defining it would help a lot. I wouldn’t call what you describe panic if there were an actual outbreak of a very nasty disease.

  10. Maybe if there is an outbreak it would do some good in reminding public health people what their actual legitimate purpose is, i.e. controlling outbreaks of serious communicable disease, rather than telling people how much salt to eat and that smoking is bad for you.

  11. Don’t Panic About Ebola?And Don’t Panic About People Panicking Either

    I believe that this was the Conservative/Libertarian positon on AIDS in the early 1980s.

    1. Are you obliquely suggesting that panic would have helped?

    2. Yeah, it was stupid to panic about a disease that has the same transmissibility factors as Hepatitis A.

  12. Here’s the thing that concerns me:

    They are putting the EMT team into isolation.

    That means that la-dee-dah, the US is so much more advanced than Liberia, and la-dee-dah, we’ll do contact tracing much better than they will, and la-dee-dah, look at all our advanced equipment and public sanitation and sterile hospital environments…

    …But if every time somebody tests positive for ebola we have to put the EMT team and ER team into isolation, it doesn’t take very many cases before we no longer can deliver EMT and ER services. For anybody. For anything.

    Our entire technological advantage disappears as soon as we lose the personnel, either because we have to isolate them, or because they decide they don’t want to die so they bail. That’s the real vulnerability here, and it doesn’t take that many cases before that vulnerability comes into play.

    And the OTHER problem is that the CDC knows the above paragraph is true, and has absolutely no qualms about lying to everyone about…everything, if it helps “avoid public panic”.

    1. Good point. And note that despite all our advanced medical hoo-hah, about 75,000 Americans die every year from infections they acquire in hospitals.

  13. Patronizing? I always found that “The More You Know” logo mystifying. Did they ever end the sentence? Usually that’d been part of an ad slogan, like, “The more you know, the more you trust AAMCO,” or a saying like, “The more you know, the more you forget,” and on from there. But these were just left hanging.

    That was preceded by “Stop the Madness”, or maybe that was later. I always expected “Stop the Madness” to be about single, very important subject, but it seemed to be a bunch of unrelated PSAs that didn’t seem to be much about madness of any kind. I think the 1st one I saw favored vegetarianism, like eating meat was madness, but then the subsequent ones had no cx to that. Took me a while before I stopped trying to put them all together into a single conspiracy theory, which seemed to be what they were inviting us to do with that teaser.

  14. I’m ready. I’ve already set up one of these.

  15. What is terrifying is how so many in the media appear to be trying to gin up panic. I live in DFW and it amazes me the stuff supposed News organizations are saying. yesterday, Breitbart labeled north Texas the US Ebola Region. There are hundreds of children in 46 states who have contracted enterovirus 68 and the media has not said squat. A real epidemic is actually happening and no one is freaking out about it. The media is responsible for so many of the problems in the US now. They no longer report the news, they try to create it.

  16. Ebola is highly infectious, not highly contagious. Highly infectious means once contract the potential for death is very high. Highly contagious means it is easily transmitted. The Flu is both highly infectious and highly contagious. People who are asymptomatic can transmit the flu to others. To contract Ebola you have to have direct contact with the virus because it dies within minutes outside the body. If that were not true, EVERYONE in the three West African nations would already be dead. Common sense people, look at the facts of what is happening. We have a single confirmed case and everyone is losing their minds.

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