The causes and consequences of the Ebola hysteria

Readers may recall the debate on this blog about whether or not the Ebola hysteria was indeed hysterical and counterproductive, or a necessary and sensible response to an out-of-control crisis.

Yesterday, in the New York Times, Rachel Glennerster, Herbert M’Cleod, and Tavneet Suri reflect on what the data say and should have said in Sierra Leone:

Misleading reports, speculation and poor projections from international agencies, government ministries and the media about the Ebola outbreak exacerbated the problem. The fear that was spread by the dramatic reports that accentuated the negative, undermined confidence, made it harder to encourage people to seek care, and misdirected attention away from Sierra Leone’s urban areas, where data suggest the economic effects of Ebola have been concentrated.

…Why were projections so bad? Partly because it is hard to collect good data in a crisis. But also, we believe, because dramatic headlines make for a better story. Agencies face asymmetric incentives: They are likely to face more criticism for underestimating rather than overestimating the impact of an emergency. As they scramble to raise funding for a crisis in a world grown weary of alarm calls, the temptation is to focus on the upper range of plausible estimates.

But collectively focusing on worst-case scenarios can make people fatalistic, damaging efforts to prevent the disease from spreading. It also has a negative effect on the economy and makes it harder for those seeking to raise money for future crises. Independent data sources and assessments are vital to our understanding of and response to the crisis.

You could argue that the authors are naive, and that the whole reason Ebola is under control is because of the extreme reaction. Possible, but implausible in my view. But that’s because I believe intense action doesn’t need overreaction.

Overall I think governments, the WHO, the CDC, journalists, and a good many others were unprepared and irresponsible. Liberia and Sierra Leone are digging themselves out of a deeper economic hole because of it. And that will cost real lives–conceivably more than Ebola claimed.

The full op-ed is important to read. Also see Rachel’s added blog post.