A call to ‘fear-guard’ countries in a pandemic

Health experts drawing lessons from recent disease outbreaks say the world can do more to prevent ‘fear contagion.’ Doing so will improve the care and comfort needed during a crisis.

AP Photo
US Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price, right, walks through a slum community in Monrovia, Liberia, on May 14. The densely-populated community was quarantined in 2014 when Ebola struck there killing dozens.

Three years after the Ebola epidemic, and two years since the Zika outbreak, experts are more active than ever in pulling together lessons in hopes of not repeating past mistakes during another health crisis. A Senate panel in Washington plans a hearing soon on “pandemic protection.” In May, the Department of Health and Human Services issued a new strategy for pandemic influenza. And the World Health Organization has a new leader promising better preparation and response.

One big lesson learned is the need to prevent panic during a public health emergency. The new phrase is to “fear-guard” a country. During many disease outbreaks, say experts, a “pandemic of fear” can be more devastating to a society and an economy than the disease itself. Business and travel stop. Trust in a government’s ability to handle a crisis evaporates. People stigmatize each other. Most of all, panic can disrupt care and comfort to the sick.

A “contagion of fear” often causes enormous economic disruption. The three countries worst hit by Ebola, Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea, lost 10 percent of their gross domestic product. Gambia, which had no reported cases of Ebola, saw a 50 percent drop in flights in early 2015.

Two new studies help point to solutions.

One, sponsored by the World Bank and the Wellcome Trust, calls for an end to the cycle of “panic and neglect” to disease outbreaks. The report states; “Pandemics attract a lot of attention when they are at their height; but once the worst is over, the sense of urgency disappears, both at the global and country level, and we start all over again.”

One global problem is that only one-third of countries have the ability to detect and respond to public health emergencies. But for all countries, which are more connected and interdependent than ever, fear can spread “extraordinarily rapidly,” the report adds.

The other report, titled “Pandemonium” and published by Global Governance Futures, says improved institutions and better financing are not enough to deal with the effects of fear in an outbreak. It suggests non-health sectors, such as religious institutions and other community influencers, should help. News media, for example, can agree beforehand on how to deal with rumors and avoid sensationalism and gross generalizations. Social media giants such as Facebook could have guidelines on how to deal with misinformation during a crisis.

“Responding to fear and misinformation will be one of the most critical challenges in handling future pandemics,” the report states.

Or as Florence Nightingale, a pioneer in health care, advised nurses in the 19th century: “How very little can be done under the spirit of fear.”

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