Thursday, 1 January 2015

Shanghai crowd crush tragedy

New Year celebrations in Shanghai, China have ended in tragedy, with 36 dead and nearly 50 injured. It seems there was a fatal crowd crush about 20 mins before midnight, according to media reports. There has also been speculation in some coverage that the tragedy happened when people rushed forward to pick up fake money being thrown from the balcony of a bar into the crowd. However, I have seen this account disputed by others on social media, claiming instead that the crushing happened at a different location to the bar, and a BBC report also argues that the authorities in Shanghai were not adequately prepared for the size of the crowds on Shanghai's waterfront. I also saw an interview with a survivor in hospital who reported that people moving in different directions through the highly packed crowds caused crushing problems. So, I would suggest that crowd management failings may have been a more likely cause of the disaster. We shall have to see if more information emerges about this tragedy that helps paint a clearer picture of what actually happened, but yet again, the media's default response after tragedies such as these seems to be to blame the victims of crowd disasters rather than the authorities responsible for their safe management.

The BBC coverage quotes a photographer from the US who paints a bleak picture of people's behaviour;
"Nobody seemed to be in control and people were crying. It was one of those times when you see the worst in people."
However, no further description is given of any actual examples of what anyone was doing that illustrates 'the worst in people', and the very next quote used from another witness which describes spontaneous cooperation in the crowd appears to contradict this assertion anyway;
"Lots of people spontaneously linked hands to block the crowds, so the injured had space to settle down, and to allow a clear passage for ambulances,"

As I have argued in previous blogs, when disasters such as these happen, the term 'stampede' is almost always used uncritically by the media coverage to describe events, with all its negative connotations about crowd behaviour in such incidents- for instance that people are unthinking and/or selfish and trample over victims in their efforts to flee danger (for more details on why the term 'stampede' is problematic, see John Drury's excellent blog on the topic). Tweets I have seen from the crowd modelling expert Keith Still argue that the tragedy appears to have been caused by a Pressure Wave in the crowd resulting from a dangerous (but usually entirely avoidable) build up of crowd density, and he highlights that previous analyses of crowd disasters (e.g. Fruin, 1993) have concluded that;
'Virtually all crowd deaths are due to compressive asphyxia and not the "trampling" reported by the news media' 
Another study of a fatal crowd crush at a concert by the Who in the US in 1979 (Johnson 1987), found that survivors tried to help others that fell over, (rather than deliberately trampling them underfoot) and if cooperation did not happen, it was because people were physically unable to do so due to crowd density pressures. If trampling does occur, it is rare, and usually because of a domino effect in highly packed crowds (e.g. if someone falls over the physical pressure of the crowd can force others to fall on top of them)- not because people are 'stampeding' blindly without concern for others as they flee danger.   

Therefore, yet again I find myself repeating my call that we should stop using the term 'stampede' to describe tragedies such as the one seen in Shanghai, as it is not helpful in getting to the truth about what happens and may even distract from the apportion of responsibility for the tragedy, if as I suspect, it eventually turns out that crowd mismanagement was the cause. Such disasters are not inevitable and it is usually possible to prevent them occurring, providing there is adequate crowd safety management planning beforehand, and speedy responses are put in place to prevent crowd density reaching dangerous levels.  




Update:
Since I wrote the post above, the BBC have reported that Shanghai police now deny that fake money being thrown from a balcony was the cause of the tragedy, as this happened after the crush occurred (and the BBC has also largely removed references to 'stampede' in its coverage, and are now using the term 'crush' instead). Therefore, it seems increasingly likely that poor crowd management was instead responsible, and the casualties seemed to have resulted from dangerous crowding levels causing a wave of people to topple down a flight of stairs leading to a viewing platform. The Chinese President has ordered an investigation to examine whether there were enough police on duty to safely manage the crowds.


References:
Fruin, J (1993) The Causes and Prevention of Crowd Disasters. Originally presented at the First International Conference on Engineering for Crowd Safety, London, England, March 1993. Elsevier Science Publishers B.B. ©.

Johnson (1987) Panic at “The Who Concert Stampede”: An Empirical Assessment. Social Problems, 34 (4) 362-73

Wednesday, 31 December 2014

2014 review of the year

As the year draws to a close, it's time for another review of the highlights of my blog for 2014. This year I looked at public order policing in the UK, and how it is still being influenced by the fallout from the 2011 riots in England. There were also examples of public order policing abroad that showed similar patterns to that seen in the UK (perhaps reflecting similar ideological views towards crowds held across the world).I also looked at Ebola, and how specific aspects of the disease as well as the authorities' apparent fear of public responses seem to have influenced how national governments have responded to the outbreak so far. Finally I focussed on situations where crowd cooperation may become difficult if people are set in competition with each other. Many of these stories are ongoing, so I'm sure I'll have lots more to blog about in 2015!

Events close to home:
The year began with the announcement of the result of the inquest into the death Mark Duggan, (whose shooting by officers from the Metropolitan Police sparked 5 days of rioting across England in 2011), and I criticised the media for playing up the possibility of disorder after the result of the inquest- something that also happened before the result of Scottish referendum in September. I argued that while collective disorder in such emotionally charged situations is possible, it is far from inevitable, and that creating a climate where riots were expected, was not only irresponsible, but also makes it more difficult to conduct an objective examination of events in the aftermath of the comparatively rare situations when riots actually do happen.
The theme of public order policing continued in February, when there was a public consultation into whether the Metropolitan Police should be allowed to use water cannon the next time there was major disorder in the capital . I wrote a report that highlighted my concerns about its introduction to policing in mainland Britain (it is already used routinely in Northern Ireland): that water cannon was an indiscriminate tactic that would most likely escalate any disorder, and that there was a real risk of people catching hypothermia if it was used (especially if it was used in conjunction with the tactic of 'kettling' crowds). Authorisation to purchase water cannon from Germany was granted in June, and their use on British streets awaits final approval from the Home Secretary (which may be granted the next time there is serious disorder in the capital), and in a letter to the Evening Standard, I responded to Boris Johnson's offer to be hit by water cannon (I believe he has yet to follow through on this offer!), arguing that there were more serious issues at stake behind this publicity stunt.
 
Water cannon- coming soon to a riot near you? 

International contexts:
Over the late summer and autumn, I looked at public order policing further afield, and argued that there were issues involved that were similar to those seen in the UK. For instance, August saw prolonged rioting in Ferguson, Missouri in the US after an unarmed Black teenager (Michael Brown) was shot dead by local Police. I argued that the use of indiscriminate tactics (such as Tear Gas, stun grenades, sonic devices etc.) and the heavily militarised response to the protests was a major factor in the instigation and spread of collective disorder. I also suggested that it was necessary to consider the wider social contexts in which these protests occurred, and the worrying frequency with which African American males die at the hands of mainly white police officers, shows that the US still has a long way to go in addressing social inequality and the distrust and alienation that many local communities feel towards their police forces.
October saw the world nervously watching mass pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, fearing a repeat of the bloody crackdown as happened in Tienanmen Square in 1989. Thankfully this did not happen, but the local Hong Kong Police did still display some quite forceful public order tactics at times. I highlighted an interesting historical coincidence that the current UK public order policing tactics were learnt from the colonial Hong Kong Police force after the riots seen in English cities in the early 1980s. So, it would have appeared slightly hypocritical had the UK government been too forthright in their criticism of the policing of the protests!


Hong Kong Police short shield unit September 2014

Public health emergencies:
This year saw 3 West African countries ravaged by Ebola, and I looked at how the authorities in the developed world have responded to this global public health crisis. I argued that the decisions in October by Australia to suspend visas to people from Ebola-hit countries, and the UK to introduce screening for Ebola at UK airports (by asking entrants from the Ebola zone a series of questions and taking their temperature) could be considered as examples of 'elite panic'. This was because such decisions went against expert advice and appeared to be done in response to pressure to be seen to be doing something and could have limited effectiveness in detecting Ebola. This seems to have been borne out by recent events, as Pauline Cafferkey (a Scottish nurse who recently returned to the UK after treating patients in Sierra Leone) contracted Ebola after returning home, despite having her temperature taken 7 different times before becoming unwell. The Chief Medical officer announced today (31/12/14) that screening for Ebola will be reviewed, although she emphasised there was still a very low risk of public infection, as Pauline was not displaying any symptoms when she travelled home (and people only become infectious in the end stages of the disease- which is why proportionately so many health workers in Africa have tragically died of Ebola).

The patient being transferred from hospital in Glasgow
Pauline Cafferkey being transported to specialist isolation unit at Royal Free Hospital, London


Cooperation vs. competition?
Finally, towards the end of 2014, I looked at the issue of cooperation (or not) in crowds. A classic (although often untrue) cliché is that people will become inherently selfish in crowds- especially in stressful situations. The work that I have done on mass emergencies has found that this is rarely the case, and that people tend to behave cooperatively, because a shared identity often emerges from the situation which encourages such cooperation. However, in situations where people are cast in competition with each other for limited resources, then it may be more difficult for such a shared identity to emerge, and so cooperation may be less likely. I argued that the scenes witnessed at UK stores on Black Friday at the end of November illustrated this concept perfectly, and that retailers needed to be more responsible when planning for and hosting such events, as they had the clear potential to set people in competition with each other.

Shoppers fight over a TV in a supermarket
Shoppers compete on 'Black Friday' 

Friday, 26 December 2014

Boxing Day Tsunami 10 years on

Today the world is commemorating the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami which killed up to 250,000 people, made millions more homeless, and devastated communities across South East Asia. I can remember how as news filtered in at the time about the scale of the shocking devastation across such a vast area, there were also heart warming reports of how these incidents can bring people together (a concept that has been noticed in research into other disasters- Solnit, 2008). For instance, there was an almost immediate international response to provide funds for the relief effort in the weeks after the Tsunami, and the Disasters and Emergencies Committee (DEC) raised nearly £400m from donations in the UK alone which was used mainly  to rebuild people's homes that were destroyed by the Tsunami. However, there were also more localised examples of co-operation in the tsunami zone. These are explored in more detail in the BBC's coverage of survivors' stories, but I will focus below on a couple of examples which I think illustrate quite well some of the psychological concepts which also emerged in the work I have done with colleagues on mass emergencies.

Co-operation amongst those affected seemed to be the dominant response in the acute situation once the Tsunami struck, and what I think is particularly interesting is that this seems to have been a universal response across the whole region. So for example, some of the areas affected (such as the East coast of Sri Lanka and West coast of Thailand) are popular with tourists from Europe, and as the Tsunami hit land there did not appear to any differences in co-operation between locals and tourists, with people helping each other regardless of who they were as illustrated by a British tourist who was on the beach in Sri Lanka at the time;
One of the only positives to come out of it all was the humanity of it. It didn't matter about your nationality or religion. Everyone was checking on each other.

This sense of co-operation was also re-iterated by a British couple who were close to land in a boat by the Ko Phi-Phi islands off the West coast of Thailand;

We all decided to stay on the boat that night, moored out at sea. The boat was too small to have taken us all the way to Phuket. The only option we had was to wait for help to arrive in the morning. It was the longest night of my life and were it not for the camaraderie of those passengers on board and the wonderful generosity of the Thai people who owned and manned the boat, it would have been unbearable. 

As the sun rose, we took the boat in to the harbour once again and waited for the larger boats to arrive. It was just awful. From our position on the water we saw hundreds of people all desperate to get off the island. They were huddled together on the pier in the harbour.

These quotes support the research we did with survivors of mass emergencies (Drury et al 2009a & b) that found similar accounts of co-operation during life-threatening emergencies, which we explained through the emergence of a shared identity which encourages co-operation rather than competition. However, the second paragraph does illustrate a potential situation where such co-operation could reduce once any unifying factors diminish. For instance, I heard of unconfirmed reports that some European tourists were fighting on the jetties to get on the boats that were leaving Ko Phi Phi the day after the Tsunami. I would suggest that if this did happen, then it could be because the immediate threat of death had perhaps diminished once the waters had receded, so the strong shared identity that may have been present during the immediate crisis phase when the waves struck, could have become less apparent. Therefore, it is possible that some people could have retreated back into previously held identities before the disaster struck and then began competing for what they perceived to be scarce resources (eg European tourists who want to go home, fighting for places on boats to leave the island- rather than people who face a shared lethal threat who need to co-operate to survive). My last post on the crowd behaviour during Black friday showed how people can behave competitively if they are cast against each other to gain limited resources, so perhaps a similar phenomenon was in play here as well. Finally, I would also say that it's worth emphasising that if any fights did occur, they did not appear to be representative of what was a generally co-operative spirit in the aftermath of the Tsunami, and some have even reported an enduring sense of identity with the region to this day- such as two British tourists who were holidaying in Khao Lak, Thailand at the time of the Tsunmai; 

Ten years on and we are still looking at life with a lot of more appreciation. We feel connected with Thailand so that is why we continue with a Thai animal charity.


The tsunami wave as it approaches the beach in Thailand 26/12/2004

References:
Drury, J., Cocking, C., & Reicher, S. (2009a). Every one for themselves? Understanding how crowd solidarity can arise in an emergency: An interview study of disaster survivors. British Journal of Social Psychology 48.
Drury, J., Cocking, C., Reicher, S. (2009b). The nature of collective ‘resilience’: Survivor reactions to the July 7th (2005) London bombings. InternationalJournal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters 27 (1) 66-95.
Solnit, R. (2008). A Paradise built in Hell: The extraordinary communities that arise in disaster. Viking, New York, US. 

Friday, 28 November 2014

'Black Friday' incidents are not necessarily crowd 'madness'

The phenomenon of 'Black Friday' seems to have firmly caught on the UK with reports of scuffles in the stores that participated across the country, and Police in Manchester have criticised Tesco for not being adequately prepared to deal with the crowds that gathered from midnight to pick up bargains. This is something I have been asked about by the media when previous events have created crowd management problems (such as the Ikea 'riot' of 2005), and the questioning usually goes along the lines of;
'don't these incidents disprove your theories as they show that people behave competitively and/or anti-socially in crowds?'   

My response is to say that the theories of crowd behaviour that I and others from my field use don't claim that people in crowds will always behave co-operatively and/or pro-socially, and they may even behave in ways that people today would find abhorrent (such as the racist lynch mobs that were common in the US before the 1920s). We would argue that the crucial factor in influencing a crowd to behave co-operatively or not is whether they have the opportunity to develop a shared sense of identity that can than lead to united action in pursuit of this common cause. The work I did with John Drury  into mass emergencies (Drury et al 2009 a&b) found that survivors of mass emergencies often reported a common identity with others in the crowd who may have been total strangers before the emergency began (eg 'we're all in this together'), and it was this shared sense of identity that meant that co-operative rather than selfish behaviour was often the norm in such situations.

What appears to have happened on 'Black Friday' however, is that far from encouraging co-operative crowd norms, people were instead encouraged to compete with each other. Such problems are exacerbated if stores open out of normal hours, and if any special deals are of a limited nature (eg 'the first 100 shoppers get a discount') as people can fear that they may miss out if they don't get there in time- which explains why crowd surges and even scuffles can break out in such situations. People behave in this way because they are being set in competition with each other, and there is much less of a chance for them to experience a shared sense of psychological unity. I explored a similar example of this when I looked at the fuel crisis in 2012, and I argued then that the media reporting people filling up their cars as 'panic-buying', as well as a government minister telling people to store petrol at home created a social dilemma, whereby people feared that if they did not stock up before others did, then they risked running out of petrol. However, this was what created the shortage, as there is not the capacity in the fuel distribution system for everyone to drive around with full tanks. What would have been an equally true (and more co-operative) message to present to the public would have been that there was sufficient fuel supplies & that they should not stock up if they didn't need to as that in itself could create a shortage.

So, I often find myself saying to the media that people don't necessarily descend into an 'irrationalist mob mentality' (a term I often hear journalists using to describe crowds) in such incidents, and that perhaps rather than asking why people can behave competitively in crowds, maybe instead we should look at ways in which we could encourage them to behave more co-operatively. I would argue that having events such as 'Black Friday' do not help encourage co-operative behaviour, and retailers should think very carefully about how they will manage such situations (or even whether they are justified at all) before advertising them. Furthermore, they need to take more responsibility for preventing the completely predictable (and often avoidable) crowd management problems that such situations can generate, rather than writing them off as examples of crowd 'irrationality'.


Shoppers fight over a TV in a supermarket
shoppers wrestling with staff for a new TV



References:

Drury, J., Cocking, C., & Reicher, S. (2009a). Every one for themselves? Understanding how crowd solidarity can arise in an emergency: An interview study of disaster survivors. British Journal of Social Psychology 48.
Drury, J., Cocking, C., Reicher, S. (2009b). The nature of collective ‘resilience’: Survivor reactions to the July 7th (2005) London bombings. International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters 27 (1) 66-95.


Friday, 21 November 2014

Zimbabwe 'stampede'

Reports are coming in that 11 people have been killed and over 200 injured at a religious service in a stadium in central Zimbabwe which seems to have happened after the event finished and people began leaving. There are also reports from local news that around 30,000 were attending the event, and as it finished, police forced attendees to leave through just one exit. Shortly afterwards people began pulling down a pre-cast wall (pictured below), presumably in an attempt to avoid what could have been severe over-crowding through a single egress point. It was after this, that the police are reported to have fired tear gas (a claim they currently deny), which then caused the 'stampede'. 

Yet again, I feel have to take issue with the use of the term 'stampede' (which has appeared in every report I have seen of this incident). As I have argued after previous fatal crowd crushes at religious festivals in India in February and October 2013, describing such incidents as 'stampedes' implies irrationalist and even animalistic crowd responses that are rarely supported by closer examination of what crowd members actually do, and concluded that crowd crushing is often more likely to be responsible for any casualties (as opposed to people being trampled by the fleeing crowd). Furthermore, using such terms risks deflecting the apportioning of responsibility for this tragedy  from the victims onto what appears on the face of it to be some woefully poor crowd management.  We shall see what further information emerges about this tragedy, but I do wish the media would stop using the term 'stampede' to describe such incidents as it hinders attempts to explore such events in detail and look at how they can be prevented in future. 


References:
Cocking C. (2013) Crowd flight during collective disorder- a momentary lapse of reason?Journal of Investigative Psychology & Offender Profiling. 10 (2) p.219-36. Available at: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/jip.1389/abstract


Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Elite panic won't help protect Australia from Ebola


The recent decision by the Australian government to suspend visas to those travelling from the West African countries most affected by Ebola could reflect a worrying development in responses to the current outbreak. The motives behind such a move seem rather dubious, as it again appears to be more the need for politicians to be seen to be doing something as opposed to a clear and present threat to the Australian population (so far there have been no confirmed cases of Ebola in Australia and I would guess that the numbers of those currently seeking visas from the affected countries in West Africa are probably negligible) In this blog-post, I will argue that such visa bans are unlikely to provide significant health benefits, could very well be counter-productive and may even risk increasing xenophobia, especially if other countries follow suit.

Over-reactive & ineffective?
The visa ban has caused anger in the affected region, and sparked criticism, with Amnesty Australia saying it has no public health justification (because visa applicants to Australia are already screened for illnesses and so would provide limited extra protection) and that; "all it does is ensure that already exceedingly vulnerable people are trapped in a crisis area and sends a signal about Australia's commitment to actually dealing with this crisis in a responsible way as a member of the international community.Sierra Leone's Information Minister has called the ban "absolutely counter-productive", and a Ugandan government spokesman even claimed that: "Western countries are creating mass panic which is unhelpful in containing a contagious disease like Ebola". Now while I would take issue with the idea that ‘mass panic’ may happen, I would agree that some of the preventive measures we have seen so far are often of little clinical benefit, and tend to be implemented by governments against expert advice in response to what they feel is political pressure to do something. In my last blog I looked at how the UK government’s recent decision to introduce border checks for Ebola were criticized by public health experts as having little clinical benefits and I suggested that they could be an example of elite panic, whereby the authorities over-react because of a misplaced fear of ‘mass panic’ in the general population. Such actions can also create a self-fulfilling prophesy in that telling the population not to worry about a crisis can create the very crisis the authorities are trying to avoid. The 2012 UK fuel crisis is a perfect example of this; when the Cabinet Office Secretary, Francis Maude was widely blamed for a wave of ‘panic-buying’ of petrol, after advising people to stock up on petrol at home in an attempt to undermine a proposed strike by fuel tanker drivers.

Australia's Immigration Minister, Scott Morrison

Increased stigmatisation and prejudice?
Another concern is that restrictions on travel from Ebola zones imposed by the largely unaffected developed countries could feed into any local xenophobic attitudes, which could generate more prejudice towards those perceived (often wrongly) to be at risk of spreading the outbreak. For instance, Australia’s Immigration Minister was reported as telling his parliament that "the government's systems and processes are working to protect Australians" I find statements like this deeply troubling, as they could all too easily feed into nationalistic narratives, and a fear of others who are ‘different’. Furthermore, measures by some US states to quarantine health workers returning from the Ebola affected region have drawn criticism after a US nurse complained that she was treated like a criminal. Reuters also reported the head of the U.N. Ebola Emergency Response Mission as criticising this decision as potentially counter-productive as it may put off people volunteering to help; "anything that will dissuade foreign trained personnel from coming here to West Africa and joining us on the front-line to fight the fight would be very, very unfortunate". The UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-Moon also spoke out on the plight of returning volunteers, saying they "should not be subjected to restrictions that are not based on science. Those who develop infections should be supported, not stigmatised."

Ebola protest
Travel bans from Ebola areas may have limited short-term populist appeal, but are unlikely to provide long-term health benefits

Conclusion:
As I have previously said, we should not be complacent about Ebola and there may yet need to be other measures introduced to tackle the current outbreak in West Africa and prevent its spread if the situation deteriorates further. However, any restrictive measures need to be based upon sound scientific advice and not by short term populist measures driven by political rather than public health considerations- something I fear we are currently witnessing. By far the vast majority of cases have been in Western Africa, so it seems at best disproportionate (and at worst, racist) for Western countries to bring in visa bans that are unlikely to bring any increased health protection. Furthermore, the risk of a major outbreak in the developed world, so far seems minimal. People are not contagious until they develop the symptoms of Ebola, and the highest risk of contagion is when people are in the final stages of disease (and often too ill to walk, let alone get on intercontinental flights), so those most at risk are the brave volunteer health workers who look after the victims. Stigmatising such people on their return with over-restrictive measures are of dubious health benefits and could even be counter-productive if they deter them and others from going to help. Finally, the international community desperately needs to work together in a unified way, and unilateral attempts to raise the drawbridge (like Australia has done with its visa ban) risks fracturing such unity and may harm collective international efforts to defeat Ebola.



The UK Disasters & Emergencies Committee has now set up an appeal for donations to combat Ebola- the first time this has been done for a disease outbreak


Monday, 13 October 2014

Ebola outbreak- Keep calm and carry on, or 'panic' and freak out?


Introduction:
The current Ebola outbreak has so far seen over 8300 cases, with at least 4000 fatalities-the vast majority of these being in the three West African countries, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea. However, there has been a media  frenzy focusing on the tiny minority of cases seen so far in the developed world, with reports that a nurse in the US has contracted Ebola after working with the Liberian national (Thomas Duncan) who died of the disease- the first case of transmission on US soil. Here in the UK, call handlers on the NHS non-emergency 111 phone-line, staff will now be asked to conduct checks for Ebola amongst callers. The UK's Chief Medical Officer (CMO) has announced that we should expect a 'handful of cases' in the UK, which seems to be an effort to help prepare the population for what now seems an inevitable spread of Ebola in this current era of global trade and transport. Throughout this latest outbreak, I have noticed different narratives emerging which I think reflect interesting (but also sometimes concerning) aspects of how Ebola is being represented in social discourse, and these often include reference to the terms 'fear' and 'panic'.





Ebola & strategic uses of 'panic'
First of all, a recent blog by John Drury looks at how responses to Ebola can illustrate the strategic functions that use of the term 'panic' can serve, such as apportioning blame to those who are displaying over-reactive or maladaptive behaviours. Regular readers of this blog will be familiar with how I argue that 'panic' is often used (wrongly) to describe what outside observers of mass emergencies see as maladaptive crowd responses. A paper I co-wrote with him on the Hillsborough disaster (Cocking & Drury, 2014) looked at how survivors used 'panic' to describe their experiences, but they also rejected the notion that they were somehow to blame, and the term was frequently used to apportion responsibility onto others (e.g. they would argue that the Police 'panicked'). The term elite panic (Clarke 2008) has also been used to describe the authorities' distrust of the population to behave 'rationally' in mass emergencies and the measures they can impose in the mistaken belief that 'mass panic' will be the predominant response to any incident. John Drury also raises the issue of whether the current responses by the UK authorities show elements of elite panic, such as the decision to begin screening for Ebola at UK border entry points. For instance, the CMO has admitted that such screening for Ebola is "unlikely" to pick up many cases, "if any", begging the question of whether it has been introduced more because of a political need to be seen to be doing something, than because of a belief in its clinical efficacy. For example, The BBC reports that a doctor at Public Heath England has said in a leaked e-mail that screening was a "purely a political gesture, unlikely to provide public health benefits". This appears to fit with advice from the UN Co-ordinator for Ebola David Nabarro, who said that screening was more effective at the point of departure from Ebola affected areas, as those testing positive could then be prevented from leaving and thus spreading the disease further.

How we’ll know if Ebola hits our borders
Entry checks for Ebola may have little more than a placebo effect 

Fear of & fascination with Ebola?
David Nabarro also told Channel 4 News that the current outbreak was worse than a movie, which may not help dispel public anxieties, and perhaps also inadvertently mirrors the strange mixture of horror and cultural fascination that we have with Ebola. For instance, this August, the BBC Radio 4 programme Summer Nights featured a very good general discussion about the outbreak (which at the time was largely confined to West Africa), but it also explored why there was a kind of perverse curiosity with diseases such as Ebola. Guests discussed how people often have a fear of, but also a fascination with conditions that have graphic symptoms, and that there were possible similarities with other cultural manifestations of this fascination. For instance, horror movies, such as Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later (where the UK is ravaged by the accidental release from a government laboratory of a super-virulent disease called 'Rage' which is spread by blood and saliva, and turns those infected into violent zombies) plays upon themes of distrust of the government and fear of strangers, both of which are present in the current Ebola outbreak. One guest even described Ebola as 'a Hammer Horror virus’, and made the point that it may be more sensible to fear airborne or insect transmitted diseases (such as the flu, or malaria), as they are easier to catch and potentially much more deadly (globally over 600,000 people die annually from malaria). However because Ebola has such graphic symptoms, people tend to fear it more, hence the popularity of films like 28 Days Later.

In 28 days later, victims with the 'Rage' vomit blood onto others, which rapidly spreads the infection

Ebola & the fear of fear
While I would reject descriptions of public responses to the current outbreak as 'mass panic', it is clear that fear of Ebola and its potential spread is influencing how it is being represented in social discourse, which can in turn result in some worrying public responses. For instance, there are concerns that xenophobia and prejudice could increase because of the outbreak, and Reuters have reported that in Dallas, African immigrants are worried about the backlash from the recent death of Thomas Duncan. Closer to home, a planned visit to a school in Stockport, near Manchester by a nine year old boy from Sierra Leone was recently cancelled after the Headteacher declared that there had been 'misguided hysteria' by some parents about the risks to their children from the visit (which seemed to be negligible as there was no evidence the boy had been in contact with anyone infected with Ebola). Tom Clark from Channel 4 News argues in his blog that the fear over the current outbreak is spreading faster than the disease itself, but that this is also ultimately counter-productive;

If there’s one lesson from west Africa, it is that fear is a far more efficient contagion than Ebola itself. Ignorance, mistrust and terror have only made things worse. Worth bearing in mind as Ebola slowly, but perhaps inevitably, makes its way here. 


Conclusion:
There is much that is concerning about the current Ebola outbreak and its potential to spread, and more resources need to be provided urgently to assist those West African countries currently being decimated by the disease. Furthermore, governments and the media in the developed world should take a measured approach when dealing with this outbreak, by not adopting knee-jerk alarmist responses that may not allay public concerns and could be counter-productive in the long term.  However, public fears about Ebola may be more based upon lack of awareness about the disease and distrust of the authorities, as opposed to any inherent public 'irrationality'. So, rather than simply implementing short-term measures that politicians think may serve a populist agenda (such as screening people on entry to the UK), it might be better in the long-term to engage with and address any public concerns about the outbreak through better education about the disease and how to prevent its spread (such as early detection of symptoms and washing with soap and water after coming into contact with infected bodily fluids). Being open about the risks, not withholding information, and treating the public as potential partners in preparation for, and the response to Ebola may also be part of this education process which could contribute towards preventing the further spread of this terrible disease.


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References:

Clarke, L. (2008) Elites and Panic: More to Fear than Fear Itself. Social Forces, 87 (2): 993-1014.

Cocking, C. & Drury, J. (2014) Talking about Hillsborough: ‘Panic’ as discourse in survivors’ accounts of the 1989 football stadium disaster. Journal of Community and Applied Social Psychology, 24 (2) 86-99. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/casp.2153/abstract