Every once in a while we’re faced with highly emotional reactions to risky situations. The “lone wolf” attacks perpetrated in St-Jean-sur-Richelieu and Ottawa on Canadian state institutions (i.e., soldiers and Parliament) last week fall into this category, as does the Ebola outbreak in western Africa. Yet, if you watch the news and read newspapers, you’d think we’re under attack!
Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying that the Ebola crisis in Africa isn’t dangerous and a major catastrophe, or that the terrorist threat isn’t real. But we have to keep things in perspective.
So far, a few people have contracted Ebola in North America and Europe. They have all been people who have been in prolonged bodily contact with infected victims in Africa, or who have treated these people. From what I gather, the non-Africans are also all health care workers. A few have survived, although we don’t know yet what, if any long-term consequences there will be on their health.
The US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) deem that a quarantine system is not needed, based on scientific opinion. Meanwhile, some states (e.g. New Jersey) have chosen to impose their own quarantine rules, overriding the considered evaluation of the CDC. The CDC is basing its recommendations on a scientific, rational assessment. I’m not sure the states and various schools that have reacted emotionally are doing the same thing. The science could be wrong, but at least it’s based on rational assessment of the risks and threat, not just emotional reaction. It’s therefore subject to updating as more empirical evidence is gathered and as the theoretical understanding of the disease progresses. Moreover, where does the epidemiological know how reside, in the CDC, or a handful of much smaller and less capable state and municipal agencies?
Whenever we face a potential health crisis, such as a pandemic or epidemic, it’s normal to assess the threats and risks and take preventive or compensatory action. On the other hand, we have to keep the threat in perspective. Every year, thousands of parents refuse to have their children inoculated against common diseases. Whether we’re talking about measles or smallpox, the risks of infection and mortality vary. The common element is that this stupid attitude toward proven measures for preventing and containing these diseases has enabled a periodic resurgence of measles, pertussis (whooping cough), etc. And, we’ve been lucky that smallpox has not come back in strength.
Here’s the thing, though: measles and pertussis can actually kill people, especially the weakest, and that usually means children. So, on the one hand we have an overreaction to Ebola by state and municipal authorities in the US (and no doubt other countries), while some people are too fearful or pigheaded to take active measures such as allowing vaccinations for their children. Not only does this put their own children at risk, but it reduces the overall “herd immunity” of a population. This is required to protect those for whom vaccination doesn’t work no matter what. If you doubt this, I invite you to watch a recent episode of PBS’s Nova science documentary on vaccination panics in the US. You can watch it online.
There is also a lack of perspective on the terrorism threat, and we need a balanced and reasoned approach to the risks of what are known as “lone wolf” terrorists. This isn’t a new threat, or proper to Islamic extremism. There have always been crackpots with various motivations, be they environmentalists ready to spike trees in order to injure forestry workers or Jewish ultra-orthodox extremists willing to blow themselves up in Jerusalem. We also need to keep in mind that terrorism and urban guerrilla are the strategy of the weak. As I wrote in my book, Brilliant Manoeuvres, it “stems from a realization the force one is commanding is incapable of highly coordinated, and highly damaging offensive action.” Security consultancy and analysis firm STRATFOR points out that the “lone wolf” approach to Jihadism is actually mostly a failure for extremist Muslims intending on creating havoc in the West. It comes from a realization that they are unable to launch destructive and coordinated attacks without exposing themselves to extreme risks of mission failure.
When a crisis hits, it’s time to think, even if hastily, not to panic and run around responding to popular appeals to “do something, anything.” We often have to weigh a range of unsavoury options in order to select and implement a “least bad” solution. The danger with overreacting to terrorism is that we impose so many restrictions on civil liberties and access to democratic institutions that the terrorists get a political and social response that is out of all proportion to the actual risks.
When we’re talking about health risks, the danger is that we overreact while we ignore or tolerate much more damning behaviours in our own back yard. Reasonable measures to prevent and mitigate contagion from Africa are one thing. But meanwhile, there are incipient outbreaks of easily preventable and controllable diseases right here, and they don’t come from Africa.
Richard Martin is a Master Strategist and Leadership Catalyst. Richard brings his military and business leadership and management experience to bear for executives and organizations seeking to radically improve performance, grow, and thrive in the face of rapid change, harsh competition, and increasing uncertainty.
© 2014 Richard Martin. Reproduction and quotes are permitted with proper attribution.