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Ebola Crisis: Disappearing Fear

Posted: March 16, 2015, 10:31 a.m.
by Sadie Schwarm.

Fall of 2014 was filled with widespread fear after the microscopic killer, Ebola, swept the nation. News cycles ran 24/7 to update the public about newly diagnosed Ebola patients and the health status of infected individuals. Now that it has been three to four months after the bulk of the crisis, which started with the emergence of the first outbreak in the United States on Sept. 30, it’s hard to tell what is more concerning, the disease itself or the prompt disappearance of updates and rampant fear.Doctor in the Fight Against Ebola in Sierra Leone

Months ago, it was apparent that the public relations teams at health organizations and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention did not have much control over the messaging the media was distributing to the public. Perhaps, the situation could have been better controlled with detailed crisis communication plans, if done correctly. The grip that Ebola had on the public is disheartening. Not to say that Ebola shouldn’t have been a concern, but why was it, of all the crises in America, what the media and public chose to fear most?

According to a New York Times article from Jan. 26 — one of the few and more recent updates — the latest patient in the United States to have the disease arrived on Nov. 15 and died three days later. At least 24 cases of Ebola have been treated in the United States and Europe since September.

When the crisis first emerged, it was fearfully easy to scroll through Twitter feeds and find an article updating the public on a recovered patient or person released from quarantine, but more likely providing news of another infected individual. According to an article by Time, social media escalated the fear by spreading misinformation. Shortly after the first diagnosis, mentions of the virus on Twitter increased from about 100 per minute to more than 6,000. Even after patients were tested negative for the disease, people were still tweeting quite the opposite, feeding the fire of fear.13887015352_261240cbb8_o

So, where is Ebola now? Is the disease still a threat?

All is silent.

This silence leaves me pondering two scenarios. Either the issue was not that big of deal in the first place, or it is still an issue but the public is not being adequately informed and updated on the situation.

The root of this crisis started with the public’s easy access to news and the effect mass communication has on the public in a time of crisis, if the crisis is not being strategically tamed, as in this case. Ebola emerged, and people lived in fear; then, it faded away just as quickly as it emanated, leaving the public with little information or hope about the future. Now, the public is optimistic that Ebola is not running on the news 24/7 because it means that there is less to report and maybe the disease is now controlled. Such an update from the CDC may ease tension and tame the fear that now dwells in the subconscious of the American public.

Shortly after the crisis, the nation quickly moved on from the U.S. Committee on Appropriations Ebola hearing, airports intensifying their security systems, and the image of a masked person wearing a yellow suit and gloves. Crises that are hastily spread with extensive capacity should not be so easy to fade away if the issue lacks closure. Control during a crisis and the short time after the crisis should not be taken for granted. Good news is still news.

Even though months have passed since any major Ebola scares in the United States, it could take just one newly infected individual to wake up the dormant fear the public and media have of the microscopic killer. If there has to be another outbreak of Ebola or any disease, we hope that public relations professionals will have a killer, ongoing communication plan to contain the crisis.

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