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'
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.
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