When I came up with the idea for The Contagion Effect, I was researching how crime can be contagious. Much like a disease, if one crime receives a lot of attention whether positive or negative, a subset of the population will find themselves drawn to it. Some will crave that attention for themselves. Others use it as inspiration. Enter “The Hot Zone”.
Watching NatGeo’s limited series, I’m reminded yet again of the remarkable similarities. People don’t want to admit that there could be a problem they cannot contain. Populations want to believe they’re safe, whether or not that’s the truth. Leaders don’t want to start a panic. This is true whether we’re speaking of a pandemic or a crime wave.
Police are hesitant to apply the term “spree killer” or “serial killer”. They know the tone it connotes and the fear it can contrive. Sometimes, that wariness leads to a larger body count, as their hesitance leads people to not take safety measures that could have saved them. It’s understandable to not want panicky humans running amok, but in the end, wouldn’t saving a few lives be worth it? I don’t know the full answer to that. Neither, it seems, does anyone else.
The Hot Zone examines the first case of Ebola reaching US soil. The first researcher was called paranoid for suggesting the sample was anything but contaminated. Nobody took her or it seriously. Two people were potentially exposed even after they realized what it was, and chose to go home to their families, assuming there was a 99.9999 chance they didn’t get exposed. But what if? You are researchers. You study this. You knew better.
The army didn’t have the authority to quarantine the personnel where the monkeys had first gotten sick, and the mid-level boss wouldn’t do it. “Because it would raise questions, and start a panic.” Why? Why is protecting the crowd from themselves more important than protecting them from everything else that’s out there?
We know these things spread. We know viruses mutate and change rapidly. We know they are deadly, and we know that action at the first sign of infection is the quickest way to prevent a pandemic. And yet… we fail to act as quickly as we could, more often than we should.
We know that after a suicide, suicide rates in the victim’s age bracket tend to rise. We know after a school shooting, there tend to be copycats. We know the warning signs of sociopaths and psychopaths. And yet we fail to practice due diligence, to set up systems to help those in need before it reaches critical mass.
It speaks to a very human problem. We believe, for better or worse, that these problems belong to some other group. Some other socioeconomic bracket. Some other race. Some other country. We believe these things couldn’t happen to us. The Hot Zone shows us the fallacy in our thinking.
It can, and it has. We should remember that.