Ebola: This Is How We Always React
It’s a criterion of growing older, that we start to think these are the end of times. For my grandparents, the war removed innocence and decency. For my parents the Cold War and the arrival of nuclear power heralded Armageddon. For us the loss of identity, the rise of fundamentalism, climate change and roller-coaster economics isn’t enough – to these we must add fear of a pandemic. But how much of this is manufactured by the press?
Of course Ebola is a horrific disease that the West has been too slow to respond to. The virus was first noted as early as 1975, spread by bats. But many governments only fully awoke to its risks after three Texas patients and a cruise ship were quarantined, as if over 4,000 deaths in west Africa were of no significance. Now President Obama has called for an end to hysteria, which has seen some survivalists (an extremist mentality that seems to affect specific parts of the US) barricade themselves in bunkers with guns and years of tinned food, as if they’ve been binge-watching ‘The Walking Dead’.
At the start of the latest outbreak, I had a blood test in the London hospital where a nurse who had contracted ebola was being treated. Nobody seemed remotely concerned; the hospital has a high reputation for handling infections, and as the New York Times pointed out, the disease is entirely manageable if hospitals react with diligence. However, less reputable press sources are already spreading panic with articles about virus mutation. The Guardian has lately taken to running ebola stories with the same frequency that the Daily Express ran articles on Madeleine McCann.
Is this the best that human nature can ever offer? When something terrible happens we fall apart, squabble and finally vow it must never happen again, as if Dr Kubler-Ross’s five stages of dying must be followed en masse? Perhaps it is the disease that plays best into the fears of our times, a perfect storm of a news item in an age that has become defined, in the words of Adam Curtis, by the power of nightmares.