That summer, President George W. Bush read about the 1918 pandemic in John Barry's The Great Influenza. Then Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. The two together convinced the White House that raising concerns about worst-case scenarios was more appropriate than confident over-optimism. Soon the CDC and HHS were sounding the alarm about a possible pandemic. They aroused some concern, but no panic; they inspired some individual and community-preparedness efforts. And then attention shifted elsewhere, until now.
Why are officials so wary of describing the worst case vividly and urging people to prepare for that possibility? There are two reasons — first, a fear of fear itself. Although crisis-management experts have known for decades that panic is rare (http://tinyurl.com/ogofyw), officials routinely expect the public to panic if told alarming things, and misdiagnose orderly efforts to prepare as panic.
This approach nearly always backfires. Officials terrified of creating panic make over-reassuring statements, suppress alarming information and belittle those who are frightened as 'irrational'. Frightened people are left alone with their fears, persuaded that their government has betrayed them. This increases public anxiety, which officials cannot channel into effective action because they have already delegitimized it. During the 2003 severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) outbreaks, for example, the Chinese government denied that Beijing was seeing SARS cases and SARS deaths. These false denials led to actual panic in Beijing.