People are irrational in their assessment of risks, blah, blah. Yes, we can find here and there examples of Americans overreacting to Ebola. But more in evidence has been media’s own anti-hysteria hysteria. This week a Bloomberg Radio host rudely and repeatedly (and uncharacteristically) hushed a Wall Street analyst for suggesting we still have things to learn about how the virus is transmitted. Guess what? This is true. What’s more the virus is subject to forces of natural selection, so even our broadly reliable generalizations about transmissibility are hardly written in stone.
The media, as if citing an iron law, keep telling us that (to use the New York Times formulation) “people infected with Ebola cannot spread the disease until they begin to display symptoms, and it cannot be spread through the air.”
Sorry, each clause of that sentence is subject to caveat, and the whole thought needs to be preceded with the words “government scientists believe . . . .”
Acknowledging these realities is not tantamount to saying an uncontained breakout is likely or possible in the United States. A person deliberately infected and sent among us in an act of bioterrorism wouldn’t be able to infect any sizable number of people given what we know about Ebola. The average American is in far more danger from a ham sandwich or the neighborhood salad bar. Yet much sense was spoken on PBS on Wednesday night by Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease expert at Vanderbilt University, who said: “I would like not to call it irrational. When people are just learning about something, something that they regard as a threat, and they haven’t integrated all of this information still into their thought process, their sense of anxiety obviously increases.”