Ebola Panic at DFW Airport

Ebola Panic at DFW Airport

Anyone who thinks that the public-at-large isn’t worried about the spread of the Ebola virus should spend a few hours at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport (DFW).

As it turns out, I had the opportunity this week to spend the bulk of my afternoon there and honestly, I was blown away by the number of people, average Americans who don’t watch cable news obsessively or read anything outside of their own local newspaper, talking and worrying about the Ebola virus.

At one point, we hear on the loudspeaker that our flight had been delayed.

Without skipping a beat, the lady next to me mutters under her breath, “I wonder if this delay has anything to do with that nurse who got Ebola?”

For the record, the flight was delayed due to bad weather on the East Coast, but it surprised me that this woman, who had to have been in her late-50’s, immediately thought Ebola was the culprit for the delay and not one of the dozen normal things that lead to delays every single day.

The area we were in had multiple TV’s – tuned primarily to Fox and CNN. In my experience traveling, most people ignore the TV’s and are more entertained by their iPad’s or smart phones. However on this day, virtually every single person in our part of the terminal was glued to the TV and the wall-to-wall cable news coverage of all things Ebola.

“Breaking News” reporting the President’s decision to delay his travels to attend an Ebola meeting flashed across the screen.

One middle-aged man with a heavy southern accent says, “I’m surprised he’s willing to take time away from the golf course.” The small crowd watching with him breaks out into laughter.

Another older, senior-citizen-aged woman speculates that she thinks the CDC is “hiding the truth” about how to catch Ebola. She warns that it could be “air borne.”

On the surface, it’s easy to dismiss these anecdotes as isolated incidents – the musings and hysterics of uninformed people. 

Most of us who live and work in Washington D.C. would hear these types of things, chuckle to ourselves and move on.

But there is something much more visceral and fundamental happening beneath the surface of what some would label harmless hysterics.

We live in a time when virtually everyone in the country disapproves of the job the President and Congress are doing, when trust in government is at an all-time low, and when most people feel their elected representatives are completely out-of-touch with reality.

The lady sitting to my left told a story of a conference call with folks in Cleveland, Ohio that she was supposed to be on but was abruptly cancelled – she thinks people who were supposed to participate in this call may have come in contact with the Ebola-infected nurse.

The gentleman to my right who was traveling from New Hampshire couldn’t get over how “off-the-mark” the government response has been to the first cases of Ebola in the U.S.

Behind us, someone sneezes.

Virtually everyone’s head turns, and for a moment, everyone in the terminal is thinking to themselves, “does that person have Ebola?”

A segment airs on CNN that the latest Ebola patient is being transferred from TX to Atlanta.

Immediately, speculation in the terminal turns to whether or not the patient is at the airport right now and that’s the real reason their flight was delayed.

Another traveler makes a point of saying people are panicking for no reason – “that 30,000 people die from the flu every year but you don’t see anyone panicking about that.”

He has a point.

It falls on deaf ears as the crowd continues to speculate and monitor the news coverage.

It’s easy to forget that unlike most of us who live and work in Washington D.C., the majority of Americans don’t obsessively follow or consume every bit of “news” that we do in our day-to-day lives. 

For most of us here, it’s our jobs to.

But the rest of the country just gets the snippets and quickly forms opinions and viewpoints based on these snap-shots.

If DFW is any indication, there is real fear, uncertainty, anxiety and an alarming lack of facts driving public opinion right now and it’s building towards an unhealthy level of speculation that will take us from concerned to panic very quickly.

@KurtBardella is the President and CEO of Endeavor Strategic Communications and a former Capitol Hill aide.


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