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Ebola and ISIS and the Psychology of Fear

October 14, 2014 Leave a comment

Ebola

There’s nothing like a good, sensational Ebola scare. Sure, Americans have virtually zero chance of contracting the disease. But that doesn’t keep 40% of the public from calling it a serious or moderate health threat. ISIS scares the bejesus out of us too. Some 70% of Americans in a CNN poll says ISIS has the capability of attacking the United States, even though you’d be hard pressed to find a single military analyst who would agree with the notion they’re anything more than a regional threat.

Here, the facts- the things you are way more likely to die of than Ebola or ISIS:

Being in a car: 30,000 people die every year in car accidents. If that many people were killed every year by terrorism, we would have built a gigantic moat around the entire nation and invaded 73 more countries.   According to the National Safety Council, what are the odds of dying in a motor vehicle accident in the United States? It’s 1 in 112.

Odds of an American getting killed in a terrorist attack: 1 in 20 million (Washington Post). Odds of an American who has not traveled to western Africa getting Ebola? Virtually zero (Bloomberg.com).

Being legally executed:  What are the odds you’ll be convicted of a felony and then be put to death?  Way more probable than getting Ebola.  The National Safety Council says there is a 1 in 96,203 chance you will die from legal execution.

The Flu: Though safer than driving in a car, 23,000 Americans die every year from the Flu. But- Oh My God…where can I get a vaccine for that? Anywhere and for free, if you have a health insurance card.

Falling Down: Yup- there’s a 1 in 152 chance you will die by falling down. About 2 million times the chance of getting killed in a terrorist act or by Ebola.

Unintentional poisoning by and exposure to noxious substances: Chances of dying this way are 1 in 119. Right up there with car accidents.

Intentional Self-harm: 1 in 103.

Chronic Lower Respiratory Disease: It’s the second largest killer in the country- there’s a 1 in 29 chance you will die of lung disease.

Heart Disease and Cancer: The #1 killers in America. One in 7 will die from heart disease or cancer.

In an excellent article in the New Yorker, James Surowiecki, summarizes the odd, but quite common psychology we all fall victim to:

At work here is the curiously divergent and inconsistent way most of us think about risk. As a myriad of studies have shown, we tend to underestimate the risk of common perils and overestimate the risk of novel events. We fret about dying in a terrorist attack or a plane crash, but don’t spend much time worrying about dying in a car accident. We pay more attention to the danger of Ebola than to the far more relevant danger of flu, or of obesity or heart disease. It’s as if, in certain circumstances, the more frequently something kills, the less anxiety-producing we find it.

Facts, are, indeed, stubborn things. Fear, however, is both stubborn and widespread.

Flu 1 Inauguration 0

January 22, 2013 3 comments
Influenza Virus- Centers for Disease Control

Influenza Virus- Centers for Disease Control

I was just minding my own business. I got home Friday night, looking forward to the weekend and the NFL playoff games Sunday. Little did I realize I was about to be the not-so-innocent bystander in an epic battle between the virulent flu germ of 2013 and my trusty but subtly aging immune system.

Like the volleys into Fort Sumter 150 years ago that continued for 36 straight hours, the flu virus launched its assault on Saturday afternoon. There was this cough that came out of nowhere. Not cool. I haven’t smoked a cigarette since early October- I thought I was done with this lung stuff. Then the beginnings of the fever hit. The trumpets were sounding. My immune system soldiers were desperately rallying against the foreign invader.

The war escalated on Sunday. By the time the 49ers had rebounded to defeat the Falcons a 100 degree fever had tipped into 101 territory. I should have known this flu meant business because my sure-fire recipe for nipping this kind of crap in the bud- two shots of Nyquil- did absolutely nothing the night before. I switched to a new weapon- Tylenol Severe Cold and Flu. You would think a product with “severe” in the name, would mean business. The flu bug laughed. It picked up Mr. Tylenol Severe Cold and Flu by the lapels and threw him out like a beefy bouncer at a night club tossing a drunk into an alley.

By the time the Baltimore Ravens upended Tom Brady and the Patriots, the health picture looked bleak. The thermometer read 101.8. And the invasion had expanded. My girlfriend Millie was now coughing and quickly hitting 100.

It was Sunday night and Monday was Inauguration Day. In 36 years in the journalism business, I have never missed an Inauguration Day. In one form another, I’ve been in Statuary Hall covering them, or writing newscasts about them, or running a newsroom that was covering them. Nothing was going to stop me from missing this one. I would come into the newsroom, and if I still felt bad, I’d go home a little early. This, of course, would be a totally selfish and egotistical move on my part that could easily have spread the flu to many others.

By 4:30am Monday it was case closed. The battle was still raging. The thermometer flashed 101.6. The flu had won. The inaugural streak was over. I would watch it helplessly beneath a mound of blankets.

Turns out that was the high-water mark for Mr. Flu Virus. For me, anyway. Meanwhile, Millie was exactly 24 hours behind. With my war deescalating and hers just heating up, I was now in the role of caretaker. The worst moment came Monday night when she hit 102.2. I quickly googled “fevers of 102.” Not something you want to have for more than a day. But also not an emergency like hitting 104.

Millie pronounced that she was officially in mortal fear. She said, accurately, “Thousands of people die from this every year!” I went into all-business mode. I presented two Advil tablets and an orange juice. “Take this now. You are not going to die. You’re not 88 years old. You’re a healthy woman in her 40s. There is also no mystery what the cause is- you have the flu.”

We added some wet towels to the equation. Within an hour we got her down to the 101’s again and eventually to 100.5. I felt a little like Florence Nightingale.

The fever’s gone and I’m marching back to work in the morning but I have to say, every muscle in my body still aches as if the flu and my antibodies had just spent three days in a no-rules, anything-goes fight with knives and broken bottles.

This story is being replicated in millions of households in 48 states at last count. I have no idea why Hawaii and Tennessee are the only places not reporting a flue epidemic but either one of them is looking like a pretty good place to hang out right about now.