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5 Foreign Policy Lessons from a Virus You Shouldn't Worry About Pt. 1

I know what you’re thinking. “Ebola is a disease; how can it be violent?” Fair point. It’s tough to assign agency to a disease. But the Ebola “crisis” in America (and those quotation marks are firmly planted around “crisis”) shows how poorly America--if not the whole world--handles crises.

Unfortunately, America’s focus on Ebola mirrors our focus on terrorism in all the wrong ways. But if America can learn the lessons for either terrorism or Ebola, we have a chance to fundamentally improve our foreign policy.

Lesson #1: Misusing Statistics

This exchange from the cold open on Saturday Night Live a few months ago, mocking the new “Ebola czar”, illustrates how people don’t understand statistics:

Ebola Czar: If anything, we should be more afraid of the flu. It kills way many more people every year.

Reporter: But .01% of people with the flu die from it. And with Ebola it’s 50%.

Ebola Czar: We could all go throwing statistics around.

Reporter: Such as?

Challenge accepted, fake reporter from a sketch comedy show who, strangely enough, actually described how most Americans feel about Ebola.

As of right now, four Americans have tested positive for Ebola in America. All of the cases came from people who went to Africa or cared for a person who’d been in Africa. Only one person died.

How many people will die from the flu? “...according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the average annual death toll from influenza between 1976 and 2007 was more than twenty-three thousand,” as James Surowiecki wrote in the New Yorker. So...we’ll need approximately 46,000 more people to contract Ebola to make it deadlier than the flu.

Oh, and the flu may be deadlier this year than in years past.

Unlike Ebola, the average person can actually do something about the flu: get a flu shot. The more people that get the flu shot, the better America’s overall herd immunity against the disease. (The CDC no longer recommends just the sick and elderly get the flu shot; everyone should.) Which means if we all work together, as a country, we can save ten of thousands lives. (In fairness, early reports indicate this year’s flu vaccine may not be a good match for this year’s flu, but the CDC still recommends getting a flu shot.)

Will we? No, because people don’t understand statistics. Even our comedy shows, instead of parodying America's misguided fear of Ebola, are actually making us more afraid.

Lesson #2: We overhype the threat.

Ebola, it turns out, doesn’t pose much of a threat to cause a global pandemic. It “burns too hot”, meaning the disease replicates faster than the host can communicate it. In other words, it kills its victims too quickly. (It poses especially little danger to Western nations, since we don’t clean our own dead like they do in West Africa.)

And Ebola is unlikely to go airborne, as David Quammen told RadioLab, “To get to that point, would require a number of mutations that are infinitesimally unlikely...it would be like mutations that would allow a giraffe to fly.” (Min 52:00)

(Look for Pt. 2 of this post tomorrow.)

One comment

When I wrote this post in December, I was afraid I’d constantly be revising the post to increas the numbers of Americans who contracted Ebola. That didn’t happen.