"I thought the coverage here in the US was appalling. It was so hysterical..." - Helene Cooper
From the Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS) Global Health Policy Center, this documentary illuminates how Americans experienced Ebola as the epidemic unfolded in West Africa in 2014 and then impacted their own country in the autumn of that year. It includes interviews with the following key players:
- Kent Brantly, Ebola survivor, doctor, served in Liberia with Samaritan's Purse
- John Carlo, Dallas County Medical Society
- Helene Cooper, New York Times
- Anthony Fauci, National Institutes of Allergies and Infectious Diseases
- Thomas Frieden, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
- Gregg Gonsalves, Yale University Law School
- Kaci Hickox, Nurse, served with Doctors Without Borders in Sierra Leone
- Ken Isaacs, Samaritan's Purse
- Clay Jenkins, Dallas County Judge
- Ron Klain, White House Ebola Response Coordinator (2014-2015)
- Allison Liddell, Texas Health Presbyterian Dallas
- Suerie Moon, Harvard University
- Amy Pope, National Security Council
- J. Stephen Morrison, CSIS Global Health Policy Center
The viewer learns that, in August and September of 2014, internal debates in the United States (US) delayed action leading up to the September 16 2014 announcement that President Barack Obama would be sending 2,800 troops to West Africa. First, there was word in late July 2014 that American missionary physician Kent Brantly had been infected while working in Liberia. Fear skyrocketed when Thomas Eric Duncan, a Liberian living in the US who had traveled to West Africa, died on October 8 2014 at Texas Health Presbyterian Dallas - having infecting 2 nurses who cared for him. (In total, 10 Americans were infected with Ebola during the course of the epidemic). What ensued was a venerable media storm, with calls for travel bans and quarantines; in general, there was widespread confusion.
The film explores the factors that drove Americans' unfolding fear and panic; for example, Americans did not understand the basic science, including how it is transmitted (not by air). "If Americans had known more about this disease, there would not have been as much runaway fear," said J. Stephen Morrison. As they watched horrifying media images from West Africa and then learned that Americans had been infected - despite having heard assurances from officials that there were adequate safeguards and training in place - public trust and confidence in the White House initially declined; the Obama administration struggled over what to say about quarantines and other issues. In short, there were clashes over who was in charge and how to protect Americans.
However, as the documentary explores, the seriousness with which Obama took Ebola, in addition to efforts on the part of the administration to ensure accountability, had a calming effort. He spoke very candidly with the American people - acknowledging the risks but explaining the plans in place to deal with the threat. He also carried out symbolic actions such as hugging and shaking hands with Nina Pham, a Texas nurse who contracted Ebola while treating Duncan; this exchange in the East Room of the White House was designed to confront stigma against health care workers. The goal was to communicate to the public that there was no threat and that Pham should not be considered a pariah.
Several of the film's interviewees look to the future, reflecting on risk communication lessons learned from the Ebola experience in the US. Kent Brantly discusses the way we choose to respond to pandemics: Are we motivated by fear, a sense of self-preservation, and xenophobia, or do we choose in spite of our fear to have compassion for people in need? (Earlier in the film, Brantly commented that one of the worst aspects of his suffering from Ebola was the anxiety and loneliness of the experience due to people's fear of him). When it comes to crises like that posed by Zika, are we going to take action to do what is good - not only for ourselves as individuals, but for us as members of a very interconnected global community? J. Stephen Morrison concludes by stressing the need to get ahead of any future crisis.
CSIS held a public screening of the documentary at the Newseum in Washington, DC, on October 13 2016. A panel discussion on how Americans experienced Ebola in 2014 and the news media's critical role in that health crisis, both good and bad, followed the screening. Panelists included: Helene Cooper, New York Times, Ray Suarez, former "PBS NewsHour" Correspondent, and J. Stephen Morrison, Senior Vice President and Director of CSIS's Global Health Policy Center. Gene Policinski, Chief Operating Officer of the Newseum Institute and First Amendment Center, moderated the conversation.
Global Health Policy Center Monthly Update: October 2016, sent from J. Stephen Morrison to The Communication Initiative on November 2 2016; and CSIS website, November 2 2016.