When Americans learned about the Ebola outbreak in March, they weren't too concerned; then, "from August to October, it was the apocalypse," a researcher tells Politifact. Now, they say it was "overhyped," he notes. Indeed, when a US health worker arrived for treatment in the US in July, news helicopters tracked his ambulance—whereas when a nurse arrived this month for treatment, it was barely mentioned on cable news, Politifact reports. As the public veered from relaxed to panicked and back again, pundits and politicians were offering up all kinds of misleading information on the disease, and those exaggerations have earned a place as Politifact's Lie of the Year.
The fact-checking site highlights a number of claims ranging from "mostly false" to way off the mark:
- Pundit George Will claimed that "there are doctors who are saying that in a sneeze or some cough, some of the airborne particles can be infectious," and Sen. Rand Paul called the disease "incredibly contagious." They seem to have misunderstood doctors' explanation: It's transmitted through fluids, so you'd need a person to actually sneeze right in your face, transmitting liquid, to pick up the disease.
- Some on the Internet said President Obama intended to detain people showing signs of the illness, while others held it was spread by George Soros and Bill Gates through a bioweapons lab.
- All these misconceptions led to extreme measures against the disease: some US universities, for instance, barred people coming from Africa, even if they weren't near the outbreak, while the governors of New York and New Jersey sought to quarantine people deemed at risk, even without symptoms. Donald Trump urged the US to ban all flights from countries that suffered cases.
All this exaggeration about the threat in the US has warped our view of a continuing, and very real, crisis in West Africa. The death toll is now approaching 6,400. "During this whole year, people in West Africa have been dying of Ebola at an increasing rate," the researcher says. "We as Americans are so far removed from the reality of what is really going on."