The Hottest First World Luxury Product: Panic

Uwe Bott

October 27, 2014


As a risk manager, I have seen risks lurking, where nobody dared checking. Sometimes I was wrong. Many times, I was right. And some of those times, I was able to convince senior management to do something about it before risks morphed into crises. The key role of a risk manager is to manage risk, not to avoid it. It is also the responsibility of a risk manager not to cause a stampede through fear mongering. Only in a few instances is it difficult to determine, where seasoned warnings end and where hysteria begins.

Over the last few years, it has increasingly occurred to me that fewer and fewer people are capable of making this important distinction. People are driven by some of the most irrational fears. Often these fears are picked up by the ever-present media and magnified many times over, creating more fear and sometimes leading policy-makers to make completely uneducated decisions, because they feel compelled to show their constituencies that they are doing something about "it". Whatever "it" might be.

With all their energy absorbed by taking control of false crises they regularly overlook risks, where they are truly threatening. And by all means, this is a First World Luxury.

First World countries generally have fairly low poverty rates, can't even comprehend the problem of malnutrition (maybe bad nutrition, but not malnutrition), their life expectancy rates are high and with all shortcomings, the elderly are well taken care of.

Of course, there are serious risks that can jeopardize many of these achievements. Losing control of the financial system, which led to the Great Recession, is one recent example. Another risk, policy-makers should be very worried about, is a major state-sponsored cyber-attack that could threaten our water supply, cripple our electricity grid or wipe out all financial records from our commonly-shared systems.

But no, nobody really cares about these things. It takes deliberation and contemplation to devise strategies to avoid the occurrence or re-occurrence of such events. It takes courage to admit that some of these crises may not be preventable, but that we are developing contingency plans should they materialize.

It is so much easier for the First World on both sides of the Atlantic to concentrate on threats that are at best marginal. Not a day goes by without another media storm on ISIS. Undoubtedly, the medieval cruelty of this terrorist organization (and that is all they are) is despicable.

But First World media have fallen victim to ISIS' shrewd cruelty campaign and have elevated them to a perceived threat to civilization like none before. The populace runs scared and policy-makers must show that they are doing something to contain this problem.

Yet, the most egregious example of First World Panic is the reaction to the outbreak of Ebola in West Africa. This really only became somewhat of a news story, once the outbreak there exceeded a few dozen people,  as had been the case in the past.  But it truly became a subject of public discourse in Europe and in the United States after a couple of Western health workers fell ill with the disease once they had returned to the First World.

In a mixture of colonialism and racism, the problem, which many had considered just another "African disaster", suddenly became a First World Problem, except that it is not.

It was, therefore, an outrageous and most irresponsible sign of bipartisanship when the governors of New York and New Jersey, Andrew Cuomo and Chris Christie, decided last week to impose a quarantine on any healthcare worker returning from Africa after treating Ebola patients. It is a sad sign of our times, when bipartisanship only seems feasible to make the most horrifically misguided political decisions.

The quarantine is irresponsible on multiple fronts. I can only mention a few. First, it further stigmatizes a battered continent with no justification. As an embarrassing side note, it should be mentioned that European soccer coaches are whining about the fact that their African professionals are asked to play for their national teams in spite of Ebola. Some European soccer officials have gone as far as to demand canceling the African Cup to be held in Morocco next January (There have been no reported Ebola cases in Morocco so far).

Second, the NY/NJ quarantine also stigmatizes heroic healthcare workers from the First World who volunteer to treat the desperately ill. Third, the quarantine discourages additional volunteers as well as the effective deployment of resources where they are most needed, i.e. in West Africa.

And lastly, the quarantine magnifies the media-propagated panic and hysteria about the impending threat of an Ebola pandemic on our soil.

This fear is totally irrational. The Ebola virus can only be transmitted by direct contact with the bodily fluids of an infected person, who already has the symptoms of the disease. The virus is not airborne and you just don't "catch" Ebola. But no matter, how often one repeats these scientific facts, the panic grows nevertheless.

Hence, the actions by the governors of New York and New Jersey are cowardly, unscientific and motivated entirely by the politics of this drama. Both want to show that they are "proactive" not like the "weak" President who has told the general public the truth, meaning that there is no reason for concern.

A pandemic is not a joke and we all must be prepared for it if it were to occur. The actions needed in such a case would mean hardship for many, such as quarantine. But Ebola is not a pandemic and raising it to the level of such public health threat is just as irresponsible as raising the profile of ISIS by telling the American people that we are all going to die at the hand of these extremists, if we don't deploy troops in Syria now (Senator Lindsey Graham).

While deaths from the flu vary every year, the average death-rate over the last 30-some flu seasons stood at more than 23,000 U.S. residents a year! Rather than running their states on shortsighted, politically motivated and deeply disturbing fake decisiveness in the case of Ebola, Governors Christie and Cuomo would be better advised to tell the residents of their states to get vaccinated for flu and pneumonia. But I guess, in a world dominated by sensationalist journalism that would be asking too much of them.Enter content here

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