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Thu, Feb. 20

Column: What price does our fear cost us?

Fear is expensive.

Last week I heard about a conference in Dallas that was canceled. It was going to include people from all over the country, including Prescott, but some from other parts of the country were afraid of Ebloa. I thought about the lost productivity of that group, and the loss to the economy of Dallas, and that multiplied by however many other groups canceled functions.

Some reactions to risk are reasonable and some aren't. When you drive to work, you take a huge risk, but you calculate that if you are careful the odds of a serious accident are small, whereas telling your boss you can't come to work anymore because it's too risky would be very costly. That's even though an accident could result in injury or even death. That conference was canceled despite that odds of getting hurt while driving to the airport are much greater than odds of getting Ebola.

Fear is reasonable, but fear that prevents us from functioning normally, that does us harm or limits us in a way that is out of proportion to the risk, isn't.

Right after 9-11 the country partly shut down. Public events were canceled. There was less holiday shopping. The whole economy took a nosedive that took years to come back from. As I said in a column in 2001, "A couple weeks after the attack I talked to some local merchants and they told me business was very poor; a computer store, a bakery. I don't get it. If one had planned on buying a computer in the next couple of weeks, then there's a terrorist attack back East, so then you decide not to buy it? What's the likelihood of an attack here? What is the likelihood (if everyone had gone about their business) that anyone around here would be losing their job?"

Fear is often not rational, and can just as often go the other direction, not being afraid of things we should. We have lots of chemicals in our food whose effects are unknown. After WWII the chemical industry transition to selling some of the war chemicals for use as fertilizers. At the same time there was a huge increase in convenience products. If some chemical made your cheap brand of ice-cream seem smoother, and it wasn't known to be poisonous, then, hey, go ahead and include it in the ingredients. No real investigation if it was safe. If some chemical makes your bag of corn chips stay crisp longer, same thing. Thousands of chemicals in our foods and other products are grandfathered in that way.

Who knows how much of our heart disease and cancers and dementia are increased by those chemicals? Those chemical-ladden foods came from sources we didn't think to worry about, and we grew up with those foods. So we think little about those risks, but Ebola has our attention.

When there is something worth fearing, often what is required is to act without fear. Not always of course. If a tornado is coming then, yes, hide in the storm shelter. But, as in the case of the reaction after 9/11, if hiding in our homes is only going to harm ourselves, then refuse to go along with the fear.

In another case of overreaction a college in Texas told applicants from Nigeria they wouldn't be accepting students from countries with Ebola. If the college wanted to be over-the-top cautious they could have asked those students to be in quarantine first, but instead decided to cut themselves off from an entire chunk of the world. No talented Nigerian graduates becoming U.S. citizens and adding to our pool of skill. No graduates going back home and being great ambassadors for the U.S. Thankfully some people did not go along quietly with that and the college reversed itself.

It's part of our job as citizens, to stay reasonably informed, to act rationally, to show a little courage when needed. Ebola is a terrible disease which our disease specialists are taking seriously, but if hiding in fear only causes more harm than good, then get the facts and act accordingly.

Otherwise we pay the price of fear, and fear is expensive.

Tom Cantlon is a local business owner and writer and can be reached at comments at

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