Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Is there any benefit in overreacting to threats like Ebola?

By Martín Sánchez-Jankowski

The recent Ebola scare in the U.S. has raised some important questions about what is the appropriate response to a public threat. The two most obvious ones have to do with what is the appropriate response that we as individuals should take and what is the appropriate response that the various national institutions entrusted with our safety should take?

My colleague Claude Fischer (in his 10/22 Berkeley Blog  post "When epidemic hysteria made sense") has warned against overreacting and in the process forgetting that there are other, and perhaps more significant, risks that we have paid less and insufficient attention to. Considering his warning are there any positive outcomes of overreacting to the current Ebola scare or for that matter any other imminent social threat?

First, overreacting can cause panic and we usually think panic is bad because it produces unreflective and irrational behavior. This is often the case, but does this necessarily mean that it always harms us or the society in general?

Being scared about Ebola, where there have been few cases reported in the U.S., does not mean that it produces unproductive behavior. The fact that there is a low probability of contracting the disease should not necessarily make an overreaction on the part of an individual or society irrational, because the low probability of contracting the disease is superseded by the high probability that once it is contracted the result will be death.

The same could be said of airplane crashes, where the number of crashes is so low compared to the number of flights, but the probability of death is quite high in the event that the plane were to crash. Thus, if we look at the crash data surrounding the number of flights flown without incident, and compare them to the number that actually went down, we would have judged the grounding of the DC 10 (1979) and Boeing 737 (1998) and 787 (2013) aircraft, because of potential design flaws, to be overreacting, especially the Boeing 737s and 787s where there were no fatal crashes reported prior to the grounding.

In each of these cases of overreacting there was certainly inconvenience for travelers, who had their travel interrupted because of an insufficient number of aircraft available to those airlines that no longer had the use of those grounded, not to mention the increased financial woes for those aircraft companies and their workers who were producing them. Yet, overreacting did ease tension, allowed for the discovery of design flaws and their correction, and in the process reduced the number of potential disasters — all of which can be considered positive results.

In the case of the Ebola virus, overreacting can stimulate individuals to be much more careful in their routines and in the process reduce further the probability of the disease advancing. If there had been more of an overreaction on the part of individuals, governments, and international agencies in the West African countries of Guinea, Sierra Leon and Liberia, there is a strong likelihood that the Ebola epidemic would have been contained six months ago and fewer people would have died.

This overreaction was exactly what occurred in Nigeria, and the World Health Organization has declared this a success against the disease. In addition, if there had been an overreaction on the part of the CDC in the Texas situation, there is strong likelihood that procedures would have been implemented and we would not be having any public discussion about this issue at all.

The number of cases found should not be the deciding factor in whether a maximum effort is to be employed by individuals and governments to eliminate the common threat. Resources can be replenished, but when the threat is about living or dying, not overreacting seems irrational, not the other way around.

Frequently it is heard that overreaction can cause an abuse of targeted individuals' civil rights, and this is often true. But there is a precedent to protect bodily life before civil rights, as there would be little importance to the latter if the former were not maintained. It should be remembered that we have quarantined individuals in other situations throughout history where viral and bacterial epidemics were occurring, as well as suspended freedoms when threats from terrorism, airplane crashes, and chemical- and nuclear-energy disasters were present.

It could be argued that overreacting can prevent, or significantly reduce, the personal and social harm that biological, natural, political, and economic events persistently confront us with, including a number of problems which are (as Claude Fischer rightly reminded us) receiving less attention.