BOB: This is On the Media, I’m Bob Garfield. On Tuesday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a report predicting a sharp rise in new Ebola infections: in the worst case scenario, 1.4 million total cases by January. The worst case scenario, however, presumes that the international community entirely ignores the outbreak. It hasn’t. On Thursday at the UN, President Obama said that a military command was “up and running” in Liberia’s capital, moving in equipment and people to set up treatment units and train healthcare workers to contain the virus, this on top of other containment measures. But Ebola bleeds, and if it bleeds it leads ...with headlines destined to alarm. The New York Times, The Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal all published headlines shouting that Ebola Cases Could Reach 1.4 Million Within Four Months. And then, there’s the TV:
TAPE: “The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates there could be as many as 1.4 million new Ebola cases in West Africa by January unless more action is taken.” Bloomberg_Ebola
TAPE: “The Ebola outbreak has been especially troubling because there is no way to treat it or to prevent the virus from spreading.”
TAPE:“We want to hear from you: do you have faith the UN can come up with solutions to crises like Ebola and ISIS?”
BOB:This all played out to the horror, but not necessarily the surprise, of Laura Seay, Assistant Professor of Government at Colby College and blogger for The Washington Post. Seay says the the source of the hysteria was the CDC, but the blame is another matter.
SEAY: For the CDC, they’re a government agency, it's a responsible thing for them to model the worst case scenario. They need to plan for every possible contingency in this particular epidemic. So they should have done it. And as a government agency. that information probably doesn't meet the classification requirements. So it has to be a matter of public record. I think the problem here is that a lot of media coverage sort of set aside or didn't put as part of the headline or the lead that this highly unlikely that we're going to see the worst case scenario.
BOB: Those headlines so employee the conditional 'could.' But a meteor 'could' strike earth next week. Russia 'could' nuke Europe. The Cowboys 'could' reach the Super Bowl. Likelihood is another matter.
SEAY: Well as a Cowboys fan I have to say unfortunately that's true.
BOB: Let's just agree that the Washington Post and The New York Times and many other news organizations who talked about the possibility of 1.4 million were indiscreet. But they are pikers compared to Bloomberg Businessweek. Can you tell me about the cover of the most recent issue?
SEAY: It says 'EBOLA IS COMING.' And that's essentially the cover - but it's not written just in plain type. It is a graphic design where the words EBOLA IS COMING look like they've been written on a wall in blood. And there's a couple problems with this.
BOB: Starting with, Ebola is not coming.
SEAY: It's not coming to the United States. Now, I think it is important to understand that we could have, you know, a minimal number of people who have been in West Africa, who got infected but were not yet symptomatic- the incubation period can be anywhere between 2 and 21 days. And they get back home in the States and they start to show symptoms, they go to an emergency room and they're diagnosed with Ebola. That could happen. But it's the what happens next that makes the difference between a West African style scenario and what we would see in the United States. We have a very strong public health system. Including a very strong infectious disease response system. There are plans to isolate patients very quickly. To trace everyone they've come into contact with. We have facilities all across the country that are equipped to handle Ebola or another highly infectious disease. There's not going to be an Ebola epidemic in the United STates, it's not going to be something that people are going to have to flee their homes to get away from.
BOB: It's not casually transmitted. It's only done by contacting body fluids of a living or dead victim.
SEAY: Direct contact with bodily fluids. And, you know, most of us are never going to find ourselves in that kind of scenario. Sot that's one problem with the coverage - that it's inaccurate. And I would add that it doesn't actually reflect the content of the cover story which is quite good and is not sensationalistic at all. It's just the cover image that is particularly misleading. The other problem with this though - is when you start to use blood. Ok, bleeding from bodily orifices is something that happens Ebola patients in the end stages of the disease, right before they day. But using that kind of blood and associating it with this disease - it's a threat. It's coming from Africa, that harkens back to a long history of tropes about Africa as this diseased and dirty continent. It's the heart of darkness and who knows what could come out of there. And in a worst case scenario this is something that consciously or subconsciously contributes to discrimination and prejudice against people of African ancestry in this country.
BOB: Reading between the lines you didn't like this cover.
SEAY: Not a big fan. Although I will say that it was slightly better than the Newsweek cover that ran in late August. Which featured a chimpanzee and had a similar thread about ‘could African immigrants bring Ebola to the United States thru illegally important meat?’ That's never going to happen. And they couldn't actually provide evidence that it would. But they used this imagery, you know, that harkens back to a time during a colonial period where Africans were equated with primates. When they seemed to be saved, it all served as a justification for colonial oppression.
BOB: Laura, who's doing a great job?
SEAY: I think Gina Moore at Buzzfeed is doing a wonderful job. There is Sierra Leonean reporter named Umaru Fofana he is doing coverage for the BBC and some work for Reuters as well. And has just been absolutely top notch. Drew Henshaw at the Wall Street Journal and his team. You know, really sensitive reporting that respects the rights of the victims, that doesn't oversimplify what's going on. And that doesn't rely on sensationalism just to get clicks on their stories.
BOB: Now you've read the CDC report. What's your headline? And what do you think should have been the focus of the coverage.
SEAY: Something like ‘EBOLA CASES SET TO TRIPLE IN THE NEXT MONTH’ would have been a perfect valid headline and a much more accurate one. I think another part of the story is why did it take the global community so long. We have known that this outbreak was serious at least since June and July and it's only now almost in October that we're starting to see the kind of financial commitments that are necessary in order to stop and contain the disease. And I think it speaks to some of the realities of inequalities in global health of whose lives we prioritize more. When American health workers and missionaries started getting infected in July we started to see American interest in the story. The only people to be evacuated are people who are Americans, citizens of various European countries. A couple weeks ago, a Sierra Leonean doctor, Doctor Olivet Buck died of the disease after her government had spent a large portion of the week fighting with the World Health Organization begging them to evacuate her and the WHO refused to evacuate her and so she died. And for Sierra Leone that's not just a question of one more person dead that's losing a doctor. Sierra Leone has very limited number of health professionals, people who are trained and willing to respond to this crisis. But also the long term problem of what you do with your public health system after it's been devastated by an epidemic like this. And, you know, if Dr. Buck is not worth as much as the life of an American doctor I think that says something really damning about as a culture and about us as a people.
BOB: Laura, thank you so much
SEAY: My pleasure.
BOB: Laura Seay is a Assistant Professor of Government at Colby College and a blogger for the Monkey Cage of the Washington Post.