Ebola: what we should be worrying about

Is a woman more likely to be killed by a terrorist, attacked walking down a street at night, or killed by their partner?

That was the question the blog asked during a talk it gave at the Melbourne Forum recently on why pundits get it wrong and which canvassed probabilities, predictions and election forecasts. From the murmurings it was clear that the audience knew the answer. But from media coverage, and political reaction to, the concurrent issues of Ebola and terrorism it is clear we could be seeing an example of what Peter Sandman described as a tendency to be worried about risks we needn’t worry about and not worried enough about ones we should.

The blog was reminded of this when Tony Jaques passed on a very silly article by Susannah Guthrie in The New Daily. The article, see http://thenewdaily.com.au/life/2014/10/27/six-things-scarier-ebola/, purported to compare the risk of Ebola to other risks eg sharks, rail crossings, measles, headphones, lightning and clumsiness. Now the blog is delighted that an Australian journalist wanted to put risks into some sort of perspective – a remarkable event at the best of times. And, the statistics quoted were accurate in terms of current risk of contracting Ebola for the average Australian. But the real issue is: what is the risk of Ebola becoming a much bigger problem; and, if it is significant, what should we do about it?

Peter Sandman has recently jointly authored a piece on this very subject. http://www.psandman.com/col/Ebola-3.htm. Looking at the available data on what people in the US are thinking and doing he and Jody Lanard conclude that there is no widespread panic over Ebola in the country and that people are generally just getting on with their lives. What concern there has been, justifiably, is about how well the cases which have occurred have been handled. The article also discusses the ‘fear of fear’ problem see http://www.psandman.com/col/fear.htm where governments and others are worried about creating more fear, by telling people about risks, than is warranted by the risk. “Or it could be……a close cousin (of fear of fear) ‘panic panic.’ Maybe they think the American people can’t take it: They’re in panic about panicking the public. (Even if they’re not worried about panicking the public, they could be worried about getting accused of trying to panic the public.),” they say. This discussion of ‘panic panic’, of course, can’t help but remind us of the fact that ‘panic panic’ fears never discourage the US and Australian governments from talking up fears about terrorism

The Sandman-Lanard article suggests Americans should perhaps be more worried than they are about Ebola, not so much for the direct threat to them, but for the global ramifications of a spread outside Africa to other areas such as Mumbai or similar cities elsewhere. The human suffering, combined with the economic disruption, could be immense. Arguably the same situation faces Australia – little direct threat but potentially a bigger problem than we imagine. This is, as the article suggests, perhaps a product of a failure of imagination.

On the basis of the hard facts it looks as if the Australian Government is not that worried about the bigger threat and just hopes it won’t touch us. They seem as determined to keep possible Ebola victims returning from helping in Africa out of Australia as the Napthine Government is to keep Tony Abbott out of the current Victorian election campaign. Meanwhile the US and the UK have deployed troops, medical specialists and provided money. In the case of the US, who do rather tend to send troops when other solutions might be better, it should be said that these troops are specialists in areas such as germ warfare and have the training and equipment to make a difference by stopping people dying rather than killing them.

But for Australia it is interesting to compare our contribution to the Ebola fight with the efforts of others. Cuba, Bill and Melinda Gates and Mark Zuckerberg have each provided more assistance to the Ebola fight than Australia has.