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Expert who studies history of epidemics: ‘Panic may be the worst possible response’

28-Feb-2020 1:45 PM EST, by Virginia Tech

A Virginia Tech professor who studies the history of international epidemics says the United States “should look to history for guidance on how to interpret news reports” about the spread of SARS-CoV-2, previously known as the 2019 novel coronavirus. 

“Our goal should be to deliver accurate information, convey appropriate levels of concern and encourage effective preventive measures,” E. Thomas Ewing wrote in The Washington Post today.

Among other topics, Ewing studies the history of influenza epidemics; the history of information, knowledge, and data; and Russian and world history.

Ewing calls on the public to be judicious about where they get their news, and to place what’s being reported in the proper context.

“As consumers of media and as members of a community where collective decisions affect outcomes for individuals, we must learn to use historical examples to guide decisions about promoting good health,” Ewing wrote.

In November 2019, Ewing wrote a similar piece in The Washington Post headlined “How the media can help fight the flu.” Published before the global community became aware of the novel coronavirus outbreak, Ewing wrote that “coverage should focus more on preventing common ailments and less on rare diseases, deaths and hysteria.”

“While illnesses, ranging from the rare to fairly common, claim lives every day, we must understand these ailments in context. The media’s coverage of disease ought to be focused on what Americans can do to prevent the spread of communicable conditions, beginning each year with the flu. An emphasis on preventive measures, not the most tragic cases, will better help to contain any outbreaks, possibly decrease the number of deaths and certainly reinforce the public’s trust in expert guidance.”

About Ewing

E. Thomas Ewing is a professor in the Department of History at Virginia Tech, and the associate dean for graduate studies and research at the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences. He teaches courses in Russian, European, and world history while focusing his research on the history of influenza epidemics and that of information, knowledge, and data, among other areas.

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