Balancing Panic and Threat: What ‘Contagion’ Tells Us about Pandemics Today

| October 20, 2011 | 0 Comments

Commuters in Mexico wear surgical masks in the wake of the 2009 influenza epidemic. Photo courtesy of Eneas on Flickr.

By Andrew Lea
Infectious Disease Columnist

Just two months ago, the film Contagion landed itself a top spot at the box office and has since grossed 80 million dollars.[1] The apocalyptic thriller chronicles the progression of a deadly transmissible virus alongside the international community’s race to address mounting health concerns—both unfolding as global social order begins to disintegrate. It may be easy to dismiss the representation of social panic in the film as a grossly implausible cinematic ploy; however, this representation effectively brings into focus the modern challenge of social panic during infectious disease outbreaks.

While proper medical access and accurate information are both important to an appropriate pandemic response, articulating risk while also maintaining social order is equally, if not more, crucial. Social and technological developments have heightened transnational population mobility, urbanization, and information dissemination, all advancements that have amplified the scope and risk of modern infectious diseases.

Most understand that a disease today can travel around the world before its first symptoms manifest.[2] The recent SARS outbreak in the early 2000s, for example, was initially localized in Southern China, but rapidly spread globally along airline routes, impacting thousands across four continents within only weeks.[3]

Although adequate publicity of these pandemic threats is vital, public responses to these risks must be suitable and measured. The ubiquity of the Internet and social media presents a new challenge in moderating and guiding public fear, as false information and unnecessary panic can spread widely and almost instantaneously.

The propagation of exaggerated information and panic during the SARS outbreak, for instance, prompted reactions that were disproportionate to the level of risk. Even in places with virtually no SARS risk, people unnecessarily cancelled travel plans, wore surgical masks, and administered ineffective—even harmful—medication. Some were even barred from returning from summer travels in the Far East.[4] Given such reactions, two-thirds of Taiwan’s population felt in hindsight that media coverage of the SARS threat was far overstated and the public response was too panicked.[5]

In fact, public overreaction and panic can pose significant problems for a pandemic response. Studies have indicated that unwarranted fear can undermine public health management and severely damage the health community’s ability to respond.[6] When panicked, people begin to take their own prescribed course of action, foregoing more well-reasoned and effective plans constructed by health experts.

With the rising possibility and danger of social panic, the art of adequately informing the public of escalating threats without inducing unnecessary fear lies at the heart of effective pandemic responses. Most importantly, health and government officials must preserve a high level of credibility. When people feel that official information cannot be trusted, they will often default to false and exaggerated rumors for information, which only feeds social panic. Maintaining credibility is the only way officials can begin to both articulate an appropriate level of public concern and direct this concern in a positive and productive manner.

Recognizing this trend—that social panic is a legitimate and growing challenge in addressing infectious diseases—is the first step in crafting a pandemic response fit for the 21st century.


[1] Pandya, Gitesh. “Box Office Guru Wrapup.” Rotten Tomatoes. 19 Sep 2011.

[2] Khan, Mobarak and Kramer, Alexander. “Global Health Infectious Disease Epidemiology.” Modern Infectious Disease Epidemiology  (2010): 23-38

[3] United States General Accounting Office. “Asian SARS Outbreak Challenged International and National Responses.” Washington, DC: USGAO, 2004

[4] Chang, Cecilia. “To be Paranoid is the Standard? Panic Responses to SARS Outbreak.” Asian Perspective 28 (2004): 67-98

[5] Hsu, Mei-Ling. “Reporting an Emerging Epidemic in Taiwan: Journalists’ Experiences of SARS Coverages.” The Social Construction of SARS. Ed. John Powers and Xiaosui Xiao. John Benjamins. 181-97

[6] Person, Bobbie, Sy Francisco, Holton Kelly, Govert Barbara, and Liang Arthur. “Fear and stigma: the epidemic within the SARS outbreak.” Emerging Infectious Diseases 10 (2004)

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