When Panic Goes Viral

Why the social response to a pandemic is as important as the medical effort

Brent StirtonóReportage by Getty Images for IME

A technician works with pathogens in Cameroon.

I recently put together a program on deadly pandemics to coincide with the release of the movie Contagion. As long as people were going to scare themselves in a theater, why not have a serious chat about the true nature of pandemics? Hollywood succeeds through our suspension of disbelief, but in the case of a superpandemic, little suspension is needed.

Few people today were alive during the Spanish-influenza outbreak of 1918, which killed 50 million people worldwide. In the U.S. alone, more than 500,000 died. But there was no panic, even though officials could do little to stop the virus other...

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