How the Media Capital of the World Greeted the Ebola Virus

The same people who told America not to panic officially have a reason to panic. Or do they?
Photograph by Getty Images

Since Ebola surfaced in America, New York’s newspapers, magazines, and blogs have lambasted the ignorance of the country at large, pulled back the hysteria of parents sequestering themselves and their kids, highlighted the general lack of credence in reason. Statistic, chart, and table have been drawn to demonstrate how small the risk really is: NPR's “What's My Risk of Catching Ebola?” graphic, published yesterday, shows that there's a 1 in 9,100 chance of being killed in a car accident in America this year, 1 in 5.2 million of dying from a bee sting, 1 in 9.6 million of dying from a lightning strike, 1 in 11 million of dying in a plane crash. The likelihood of contracting Ebola in America? That’s 1 in 13.3 million: practically nonexistent.

That was all before New York City’s first case of Ebola was confirmed on Thursday night. Suddenly, the same New Yorkers who pride themselves on Yoko Ono-like oblivion and sophistication had to indulge in the panic like the rest of America. Echoing in our minds: Who was that who sneezed on the subway? Gaining on the Nasdaq: shares of Lakeland Industries, a fabricator of Hazmat suits. Blowing up phones: moms texted their loft-living kids: "Don't let anyone spit or bleed on you."

To some New Yorkers, this anxiety was familiar. After the attacks on the World Trade Center, on September 11, 2001, much was made over New York’s shattered invincibility. Then one week after the towers collapsed, letters laced with spores of the bacterium Bacillus anthracis—anthrax—began to appear in the U.S. mail, destined for arrival at the offices of several media organizations, including the New York Times, and of two Democratic Senators. Five people died, and seventeen more were infected—and of course, a newsroom is the perfect way to make panic go viral.

Stephen Engelberg, founder and editor of Pro Publica, was in the newsroom when anthrax arrived—"like baby powder," wrote his colleague Judith Miller—and went on to write a book about biological weapons with Miller and William Broad. In most ways, he believes that knowledge is the cure for panic. “The bottom line for somebody who follows the news is that it doesn't really change whether it’s in an isolation ward at Bellevue or a hospital in Dallas," he said. "If you do maintain a basic level of rational behavior, you have to believe that your chances are vanishingly small of ever coming anywhere near this.”

Donald G. McNeil Jr., a science and health reporter for the Times, felt much along the same lines. “I'm still not worried about it. I have lived in three of the epicenters of the AIDS epidemic for the last 40 years – New York, San Francisco, Johannesburg. And I didn't worry about myself or my daughters.” He told me that, in 2009, there was a day when the CDC was talking about an unusual flu detected in Texas and along the border. He had heard reports of a mysterious viral disease in Mexico, and asked the CDC at a press conference whether there might be any connection. They didn’t know. "But," he went on, "by the time I came in the next day there was a state of emergency: masks on faces, people dying in hospitals in Mexico City. My editor said, do you think you should get down there? I said to my editor, it's the flu, it’ll get here faster than I get there. Kids at St. Francis in Queens had been to Cancun, and brought it back. What are you gonna do, close the East River?”

“Look, more people have died of the Black Death in this country this year than have died of Ebola. And yet nobody sits around worrying about the Black Death, the plague.”

McNeil’s daughter lives in Williamsburg, he told me, but she doesn’t go bowling. McNeil, however, does. He granted, playfully but seriously, “Bowling balls are something to think about: a perfect fomite, a large, hard, slick, nasty object. Think of a kid's birthday party—if a kid sneezed on the ball and then passed it on to the next guy, I wouldn’t want to use that."

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