Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Ebola and Public Interest

As the Ebola Virus Disease (EVD) spreads, public interest has followed in lockstep.

This is unsurprising. Facing EVD’s transmission across international borders, its extraordinary death rate, and its symptoms – such as bloody excretion from multiple orifices – EVD is hellish. We want to know how to protect ourselves. Media coverage is thus centering on EVD risks, symptoms, treatments, and containment plans.

Yet, this specificity is unusual for a crisis. For example, consider our ‘understanding’-driven interest in EVD, with our ‘conjecture’-driven interest in the disappearance of MH370.

When MH370 disappeared back in March, we were obsessed by the apparent implausibility of the circumstances. How in the digital technology age of multiple satellites and advanced radar, could a plane simply disappear? The circumstantial, often contradictory reporting fueled easy conspiracies. As I suggested at the time, “The longer the conundrum continues, the more our analytical tendencies give way to our expanded imaginations.” But where MH370 had indirect relevance to our own reliance on aviation, today’s EVD crisis has much more direct relevance to us. We were quietly confident that MH370 was a freak event; something that would not befall us. But the EVD outbreak has become a personal danger. With EVD, we no longer find excitement in the punditry of unknowns.

Still, with EVD, our variable perception of the danger has driven our variable attention to it. It's telling that the EVD outbreak only attracted widespread western attention after cases were identified outside Africa. Before, it was psychologically distant. Now, it is physically (and thus psychologically) near. 

Of course, in large part, our attitudes are also indelibly shaped by our modern cultural understandings of danger: a world of virus disaster movies bound to a more unpredictable world. As the BBC notes, from Brazil to Chile to Spain, false social media reports of EVD outbreaks are spreading fear in  the psychological proximity born of internet networking.

But it goes deeper than culture.

After all, there’s another in-the-news example here. Just as our desire to understand EVD attached to its arrival in the west, our desire to understand ISIL attached to the video beheading of westerners. Before that, the ISIS threat could be ignored or pontificated upon. After, however, it became personal. My underlying point is basic. Today, although modern technology grants an unmatched ability to understand global circumstances, our interest in crisis events is framed by our physical and psychological proximity to them. In short, we rarely care except when it directly concerns us to care. Until then, we prefer to close our eyes. And hope for the best.

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