Moral Panic Notes: Further on the Great Yellow Jack Attack of 2008

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Jornal do Trem: Cheerfully amateurish little free weekly covers the Great “Yellow Jack is Back!” Panic of 2008. “On the wings of the fever: “Authorities try to contain the alarm of the population which fears a general epidemic of yellow fever.”

Moral crusades advance claims about both the gravity and incidence of a particular problem. They typically rely on horror stories and “atrocity tales” about victims in which the most shocking exemplars of victimization are described and typified. Casting the problem in highly dramatic terms by recounting the plight of highly traumatized victims is intended to alarm the public and policy makers and justify draconian solutions. At the same time, inflated claims are made about the magnitude of the problem. A key feature of many moral crusades is that the imputed scale of a problem … far exceeds what is warranted by the available evidence. — Ronald Weitzer, “The Social Construction of Sex Trafficking: Ideology and Institutionalization of a Moral Crusade,” Politics Society 2007; 35; 447

Too often, it is the media-created event to which people respond rather than the objective situation itself, as was the case when media provoked anxiety resulted in massive public rejection of food products reported as potentially related to an outbreak. Development of new approaches in mass communication, most recently the Internet, increase the ability to enhance outbreaks through communication. –Boss, Leslie P., “Epidemic Hysteria: A Review of the Published Literature” in Epidemiologic Reviews, Vol. 19, No. 2.

Ministério diz que 31 pessoas estão internadas por superdosagem (G1/Globo, Brazil): The Ministry of Health warns of ill effects from taking unnecesary doses of yellow fever vaccine. Cases of “overdose” has hospitalized 31, it announces.

Coverage of the yellow fever “outbreak” provides yet another case study in the propensity of the major Brazilian news media for “moral panic” journalism.

It was interesting to compare coverage of this health alert, for example, with the coverage of risk assessments of an energy shortage, caused by low rainfall and consequent depletion this year by the likes of Globo’s Miriam Leitão on GloboNews the other evening.

Leitão, on her program teaser: “The government says there is no risk of rolling blackouts. But that’s not true!”

“The government lies about everything!”

But as far as I can tell — and you have to dig critically on your own to get a fair picture of the situation — the government is not saying there is no risk of blackout. No risk manager in their right would ever say there is absolutely no risk of anything. Leitão seems to be engaging in a cheap straw-man argument. As usual.

The goddamn gummint, as far as I can see, is saying that it finds that the risk of blackouts are within its target parameters in some regions, but higher than its target parameters in some areas, and that it is using these assessments to decided whether or not, and when, to turn on the supplementary generation capacity offered by a network of fossil fuel-powered plants.

There have been some interesting articles on alternative analyses of the situation — most of them reflecting the point of view of industries who see their fuel and energy costs rise when cogeneration plants add demand to the market.

Legitimate analyses to consider, so long as they parties sponsoring them are identified and their stake in the game is made clear. These are parties that stand to lose more if risks materialize, and so are understandably in favor of tighter risk margins.
But in the end, we simply ignored the Leitão teaser and did not watch the show.

Miriam Leitão, we tend to find, does not know what the hell she is talking about, or care to know, but tends to screech her opinions very loudly into the gazillion jigawatt megaphone anyway. Like some sort of human cockatoo. See, for example,

Uncle Hugo did not win the referendum.

Ecce Globo. Which is not to say that there are not signs of intelligent life at the Organizações Capivara. This yellow fever FAQ from the G1 news portal, for example, seems reasonably well done.

I really think keeping a close eye on the original reporting that G1 produces — as opposed to the toxic content it merely aggregates and recycles — provides a useful indicator of the future direction of Globo journalism.

I think the people doing that sort of work on the Globo news portal should probably be given TV programs and newspapers to run, once Globo fires Ali Kamel (and Miriam Leitão) with extreme prejudice.

In the meantime, I thought the funky little free paper they hand out to commuters on CPTM commuter line here in São Paulo illustrated both the positive and negative tendencies of press coverage of the yellow fever panic here rather neatly.

The Jornal do Trem, for example, is the only local publication I have seen that, rather than simply reproducing government infographics — which were highly technical, epidemiology-oriented, and sort of fuzzy — published an infographic on how the disease is transmitted on a case by case basis.

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Fear and misinformation abound (emotional ventriloquism): “Yellow fever frightens the Brazilian population.” The infographic, however, usefull shows the method of infection for the two kinds of yellow fever outbreaks, sylvatic and urban. In sylvatic outbreaks, a mosquito found in wilderness areas bites an infected monkey, then bites a human. In urban outbreaks, another type of mosquito bites one infected human, then another.

The graphic is kind of amusingly amateurish — “google me up some free monkey clip art, Regiane” — but you know what?

This cheeky, amateurish little rag — it reminds me a lot of my high school newspaper, The Tiger — actually really helped me, as an average individual Fulano de Tal who needs to decide whether I should get a vaccination or not, to understand how the risk scenario affects me. This where many major news organizations failed to do so.

The risk of a return of the urban form consists in failing to identify cases of people who bring the disease back from a rural area and then are bitten by the local mosquito — which also carries dengue, and is the subject of a current eradication effort against that disease, which has infected a handful of dozens of persons this rainy season.

Normally in off-the-grid communities still scandalously lacking in basic sanitation infrastrucure.

Now that I go looking, I stumble across an infographic to this effect that G1 has produced. After clicking through numerous coverage layers, mind you. It is not exactly front and center in its coverage.

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But the humble Jornal de Trem still has a distinct edge, I think, because its (cheesy) graphic is(1) way, way more concise (much less wordy, and avoiding the use of $10 words) and (2) designed to reach me with the information offline, where the vast, vast majority of people who hang around with monkeys and monkey-biting mosquitos still live.

The illustration of the urban transmission mechanism also struck me as vague:

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In the red text box, it makes the point that there is no such thing as direct transmission from one human to another.

And yet the graphic shows a red line connecting one human to another.

A fuzzy, animated something or other appears to emerge from the left-hand man’s head and plunge into the right-hand man’s head, like some kind of bullet fired out of left-hand man’s left ear.

Is that fuzzy, animated something the disease vector, or the disease itself?

It takes some puzzling to realize that the fuzzy something is supposed to be the mosquito carrying the virus.

There are actually several distinct chapters to this story, and a cast of at least four characters:

  1. Mosquito bites João, who has the yellow fever virus
  2. Mosquito picks up the yellow fever virus from João
  3. Mosquito flies over to Edinaldo‘s house
  4. Mosquito bites Edinaldo, passing the virus to that poor bastard

The storyboard should break down the story to reflect all those events.

And the virus itself should figure as a character in the story.

It is, after all, the principal villain.

A mosquito not carrying the virus is just another minor pain in the ass.

I immediately think of Woody Allen in Everything You Always Wanted to About Sex …, dressed up as a sperm. Remember that?

Regiane, google me up some sinister-disease clip art! (A virus is often depicted with a double-helix molecular diagram. Or you could use the international biohazard symbol.)

O Ministério da Saúde informou, na noite desta sexta-feira (18), que 31 pessoas estão internadas em todo o país por ter tomado mais de uma dose de vacina contra a febre-amarela. Duas delas estão em estado grave, ambas no Distrito Federal. Elas se vacinaram duas vezes em um intervalo de 10 dias.

The ministry of health reported on Friday that 31 persons are in hospitals all over Brazil after taking an extra dose of yellow fever vaccine. Two are in critical condition, both in the Federal District. They both got vaccinated twice within a period of 10 days.

Apesar dos alertas da Secretaria de Saúde do DF, muitas pessoas que já haviam se imunizado contra a febre amarela voltaram aos postos de saúde para receber uma segunda dose. Para tentar garantir uma melhor imunização, algumas pessoas ignoraram os alertas e exageraram.

Despite warnings from the federal district health secretary, many persons who were already immunized against the disease returned to health clinics for a second dose. In an attempt to achieve better immunization, some people ignored the warnings and overdid it.

Uma senhora e um jovem de 20 anos resolveram tomar duas doses de vacina, com intervalo de um ou dois dias entre cada uma, para assegurar a eficácia.

A woman and a young man of 20 decided to take two doses of the vaccine within a period of one or two days between doses, in order to assure the efficacy of the vaccine.

Como resultado da superdosagem, o jovem acabou internado com hepatite e a senhora foi atendida na emergência de um hospital com choque anafilático.

As a result of the overdose, the young man wound up hospitalized with hepatitis, while the woman was taken to the emergency room with symptoms of anaphylactic shock.

I have not had time to try to collect all the coverage on this issue, but my general impression is this: The government, I tend to think, did not always communicate effectively on the issue, even though its disease-control program and its monitoring response were very probably up to WHO standards, and by the book, and certifiably effective, and right and proper, and everything.

Brazil has a good international reputation for tropical disease medicine, and there is no real reason that I know of to think that reputation is undeserved — or that its know-how in this area is some kind of Communist plot, like secular humanism and fluoridation of water supplies.

But the health undersecretary in charge of disease control, for example, did not have a good “for dummies” explanation ready, I thought. I had to puzzle over some fairly technical material to really understand what he was saying. See also

The guy is a total Poindexter, and knows his stuff, but is not good at breaking it down into words of one syllable for the average São Paulo motoboy — who is far from being an intractably stupid creature by any means, basically and on average, but who has unfortunately not had world-class educational opportunities.

This is very common in the real world.

Many, many very smart people are just not very good at explaining what they know in words of one syllable. Math geniuses are often atrocious spellers, for example. I know this for a fact, from editorial experience.

This is why you have professional communicators who make their living compensating for that very common human failing.

Rather than correcting for this defect, as a service to the reader, however, a lot of the press took advantage of these shortcomings to hammer on the idea that “you cannot trust anything (this) government says!”

They then ask you to put your faith in their own brand of David “Fear and Misinformation Abound” Sasaki-style vague, spooky, exaggerated bullshit.


See, for example

And especially

It reminds me of nothing so much as that case a few years ago in which U.S. researchers found that victims of childhood sexual abuse may not have as dire a prognosis for subsequent psychological problems as previously thought.

Which you would think would be good news.

Not that coerced child-fucking is actually good for anyone, but that there are things you can do to fix the problem. Minimize harms. Yada yada.

Just because your wicked Uncle Ernie fiddles about with you does not mean you have to grow up to be Henry, portrait of serial killer.

Effective treatment is possible.

No need to stigmatize victims as inevitable bearers of severe psychosocial maladjustment.

That risk can be ameliorated.

That sort of thing.

Gibbering politicos, however, screamed that these research results gave aid and comfort to those who want to legalize baby-buggering!

And tried to (1) yank the research funding and (2) suppress the results.

Implicit message: “We gibbering politico need child-fucking to cause irreparable harm, or else our moral panic campaign will not work any more!”

“Therefore, we choose to punish those who produce credible, properly qualified, evidence to the contrary!”

New World Portuguese has a nice term for this gambit: Politicar (v.) and politicagens (n.).

And the horse it rode in on.

Yellow fever is a virulent disease. You need to educate yourself, demand clear information on the subject, and take proper precautions against infection.

Brazilian journalism of a certain kind is an even more virulent disease. You need to educate yourself, demand clear information on the subject, and take proper precautions against infection.


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