Ebola: Probably the Biggest Communications Screw-up in Recent Memory

More than 10,000 cases of Ebola have been documented worldwide, and as of last week, there have been almost 5,000 deaths from this deadly disease. Judging by the amount of attention the issue is getting, it is important to remember that only one of those deaths occurred in the U.S.

The media fire fanned by Governors Christie and Cuomo’s confusing, self-contradictory statements have further obscured the enormous suffering of African victims and their families, and have made it more difficult to recruit needed health professionals to volunteer for service in Africa. Nice going, guys.

Of course, the federal government didn’t help. The Center for Disease Control’s (CDC) screw-ups and lack of preparedness in Dallas are truly newsworthy and important stories that need to be covered.

If, as they say “The first casualty of war is the truth,” then the same thing could be said about scary epidemics. Incendiary coverage occurred in the early days of the AIDS epidemic and it is happening again, but this time with palpable panic from the unrelenting news media. People simply don’t believe the public utterances of our leaders, because it is clear that they are flailing around and making policy on the fly.

Here are a few notable “releases:”

  • The health care system is ready for Ebola. We then see that one of the leading hospitals in Dallas was horribly unprepared.
  • The White House opposes quarantining returning health workers. But, the U.S. Army is doing it with returning soldiers.
  • People exposed to Ebola must be quarantined in their homes to prevent infecting other people. However, Cuomo says they can have visitors.
  • We will quarantine people in hospitals (tents, actually) for 21 days across the river in “Christieland.” However, they can go home if they are from another state. Then, Christie denied what he was recorded saying the previous day, continuing his pattern of public fibbing.
  • The CDC ordered Ebola screenings at JFK, O’Hare and Newark airports. However, that isn’t good enough for the state governors.
  • State leaders are saying “This is state policy.” But, long after the announcement, websites of the health departments in New York and New Jersey didn’t cover the official policy.
  • We don’t have a vaccine. Oh, but we’re forgetting about the one on the shelf that was developed a decade ago and tested in monkeys that worked, but was never tested on people.

In crisis mode, it is best to:

  • Develop a plan and stick to it. Don’t backslide in the face of political opposition because it makes it look like politics is governing what should be public health decisions.
  • Try to get reporters to take a breath and re-focus the conversation on facts, while acknowledging the public’s concerns.
  • Think through all the implications and likely questions before stepping up to the mic.

But most importantly, we need to get the focus back on West Africa and on stopping further cases. We need to rally people to support groups that are valiantly fighting to bring the human and medical resources to stem the tide. We need the media to stop the hysteria and focus on the real stories.