While President Obama is hosting an economic summit with African leaders this week, the Ebola outbreak is overshadowing major economic news. Experts argue that the epidemic can be curbed, but note rampant distrust toward aid organizations in rural communities makes treatment and prevention difficult. Social scientific research helps explain how media and governments shape the way citizens respond to outbreaks.

We usually think media fans the flames of mass panic, but research on previous Ebola shows media sources actually turn toward a “containment” narrative, emphasizing that it’s hard to catch Ebola and the outbreak is “somewhere else.”
It isn’t that local communities “don’t understand” that aid workers are there to help. Epidemics often manufacture misunderstandings and mass panic. Recently, in New York City’s Chinatown, Asians were “stigmatized during the SARS epidemic despite having no SARS cases.”
Political context also matters, including the actions of national governments and international NGOs. Comparative work on Uganda and South Africa’s approaches to HIV/AIDS has shown top-down strategies don’t calm the infection rate. Bottom-up approaches, like changing hygiene behaviors, are more effective at the local level. However, this tactic requires an environment of “representation and democratic participation” that governments and international organizations have to build and frame.