The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Americans are terrified of Ebola. Which could make it harder to stop Ebola.

Here's how the virus spreads and how contact tracing works to stop outbreaks. (Video: Gillian Brockell/The Washington Post)

Congratulations, media: Americans are thoroughly freaked out about Ebola. A new Washington Post poll shows that fully 43 percent of Americans say they’re worried that they or someone in their immediate family is going to get the disease, a number that was eleven points lower when the Pew Research Center asked the question just a week ago. Thirty-one percent say they’re very concerned that there will be a “widespread Ebola epidemic” in the U.S., and another 34 percent are somewhat concerned.

We’re scared, and getting more scared all the time. And it may be time to wonder whether the combination of fear and politics could hinder the effective decision-making needed to keep the virus from harming Americans.

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Yes, Ebola is a terrible infectious disease, one that kills most of the people who catch it. And in parts of west Africa, there is a genuine outbreak that has already killed thousands of people. If you were in Liberia right now, you’d have good reason to be afraid.

But you’re not. Here in this country, exactly two people out of 316 million of us have gotten the disease: a man who contracted it in Liberia when he came in contact with a person who was already gravely ill, and a nurse who treated that man. As a point of comparison, twenty-four Americans have been killed so far this year in lightning strikes.

Obviously, our fears have little to do with the things that might actually kill us. We spend time and money worrying about the dramatic, unusual events like terrorism or infectious diseases, but don’t think about things like car accidents (not to mention heart disease) that are much more likely to strike.

And Ebola is a natural for cable news, where fear means viewers and it’s easy to tap into narratives we’ve seen play out in a dozen movies and television shows. You don’t even have to go to Fox News, where deranged contributors claim that President Obama wants Americans to get Ebola so we can “suffer along with less fortunate nations.” There is sensationalist coverage everywhere, in which networks with time to fill spend hours on baseless speculation and nightmare scenarios.

In the Post poll, 67 percent of respondents supported restrictions on travel to and from the affected countries. Some lawmakers have begun calling for such restrictions. But experts say that could make the situation worse, by preventing the movement of supplies and personnel needed to contain the outbreak in west Africa. And containing the outbreak at its source will have more of an impact on whether any more Americans become affected than anything else we can do.

That’s just one example of how political pressure fed by fear could end up resulting in bad decision-making, but there may well be others soon enough. So there are a few things to keep in mind as we think about this disease. The first is that politicians have almost nothing to contribute when it comes to keeping us safe. If you hear a candidate for office talking about it, and he says much beyond, “Let’s just make sure the CDC has the resources it needs,” he’s probably just trying to frighten you. The second is that the actual risk to you and your family is incredibly low. And the third is that if you find yourself with symptoms including anxiety, sweating, and a clutching in your chest, you’ve probably been watching too much television.