Saturday, October 25, 2014

Ebola's Information Paradox, Part II: Do we hear?

Looking back to a devastating Cholera outbreak in a poor neighborhood of London in 1854, Steven Johnson notes that "it took two entire weeks before the press began treating the outbreak as a major news event for the city."  A hundred and sixty years later, we're safer (although more fearful) because news travels faster:
Compare this pattern of information flow to the way news spreads now. On Thursday, Craig Spencer, a New York doctor, was given a diagnosis of Ebola after presenting a high fever, and the entire world learned of the test result within hours of the patient himself learning it. News spread with similar velocity several weeks ago with the Dallas Ebola victim, Thomas Duncan. In a sense, it took news of the cholera outbreak a week to travel the 20 blocks from Soho to Fleet Street in 1854; today, the news travels at nearly the speed of light, as data traverses fiber-optic cables. Thanks to that technology, the news channels have been on permanent Ebola watch for weeks now, despite the fact that, as the joke went on Twitter, more Americans have been married to Kim Kardashian than have died in the United States from Ebola.
Well yes, wonderful. But how long did it take for news of a deadly, fast-developing epidemic in West Africa to bubble up into full public consciousness in the United States? The psychological quarantining of a poor region in the grip of a terrible affliction persists.

To be fair, news of the outbreak was published internationally from the time the first cases were reported in March of this year.  The New York Times had articles tracking the disease's progress every few days in March and April. But the news probably did not fully register for most of us until Ebola patients started turning up in the United States. And the World Health Organization and Obama administration were notoriously slow to commit serious resources to stopping the disease's spread. The "too slow" warnings persist to the current moment. And of course, demagogues loudly demanding that West Africa be sealed off and left to its fate abound. 

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