Regis Today | Fall 2020 | Outbreak Culture

Interview by Kristen Walsh

Lara Salahi, EdD ’19 is an award-winning journalist and television producer, assistant professor of broadcast and digital journalism at Endicott College, and co-author of the book Outbreak Culture: The Ebola Crisis and the Next Epidemic (Harvard University Press, 2018). The book—which warns about the potential for an airborne epidemic—uncovers a pattern of dysfunctional response for infectious disease outbreaks that is reflective of today’s COVID-19 pandemic. It is one of many resources used in a new interdisciplinary Regis course that examines the pandemic through multiple lenses.


What inspired the book? As a health reporter I had previously covered major infectious disease outbreaks, and when the Ebola outbreak hit in 2014 I was introduced to Dr. Pardis Sabeti, a scientist at Harvard who had sequenced the genome for Ebola during the outbreak and had also researched other infectious diseases. I originally planned to write a story about her work, but our conversations grew into the idea of working on a book together. There were interesting things happening during the Ebola outbreak that had nothing to do with the virus itself. We wondered if this had also happened during other major infectious disease outbreaks. 


What is the recurring pattern of response to outbreaks? We surveyed more than 200 Ebola responders, many of whom had also responded to other infectious diseases. Some of the patterns we saw during the Ebola outbreak are being repeated during the COVID-19 pandemic: downplaying the severity of the outbreak; not having enough personal protective equipment and medical supplies to adequately respond; and inconsistent health messages that are supposed to protect us. These lead to a delay and inconsistencies in response.


How does this impact public safety? Given the inconsistencies in messages, there are ideas that trickle down to the public level about adhering to certain prevention measures. For example, the call for social distancing, mask wearing, hygiene, a possible vaccination, and other prevention measures are met with levels of skepticism. 

It’s really interesting because human nature is very universal and uniform. During the Ebola outbreak there were stories published in American media that criticized those living in the hardest-hit countries for not complying with particular health messages that would fundamentally change their way of life, including not attending funerals or isolating themselves. But now that it has happened in the United States, there’s a role reversal. 


What is the reason behind this toxic outbreak culture? Our research shows that these are dysfunctions by design. The current culture of handling outbreaks time and again has been to choose response over readiness, even though experts have sounded the alarm again and again that something more widespread and catastrophic is coming. The fact that politics is driving decision making is part of that dysfunction by design.


Were you surprised by the information you discovered? I wasn’t surprised but I did feel disappointed. There are so many chances between each epidemic to do better; you’ve got to seize that quiet moment to do the bulk of the work to build up your capability to respond. That did not happen. 

After the Ebola outbreak ended in 2016, so many policy reports and guidelines were released—ways to be better-prepared for the next epidemic. Much of those recommendations were not followed. It gets more difficult as it’s happening to try to catch up to a fast-moving and novel virus.


Aside from the direct result of contracting a potentially deadly virus, what are some fallouts from pandemics and epidemics? A virus is more than just a pathogen; it changes our sense of normalcy. We will continue to see an upsurge in the incidence of mental health disorders like depression, anxiety, PTSD, and substance use. This outbreak has affected every facet of life, from social and emotional to economic. You don’t need to contract coronavirus to be affected by it. 


What is the most interesting aspect of the coronavirus response? How quickly outbreak fatigue has set in. We’re not even a year into this outbreak and yet we are tired. We’re treating this as a sprint when this is a marathon. This outbreak is not going away and yet there’s a real push to bring things back to normal. 


What will help people push through the outbreak fatigue? Trust the public health experts and those on the front lines. Let their directives drive your level of personal risk and response; that will vary depending on your individual situation based on many health and lifestyle factors. 

To avoid playing into the toxic culture of outbreak response, don’t blame others—leadership, agencies, your neighbor—for their choices. Their life is different from your life, and you never fully understand a person’s circumstances. 


How do you incorporate your book and your expertise into your courses and conversations with students? When the book was published, I was teaching a health reporting class so it seamlessly incorporated. This semester I’m teaching an honors course on politics and the press and there’s a unit on the politics of pandemics. But no matter the course, as a journalism professor I see more than just the topic or issue. There’s always the pervasiveness of research, interviews, and writing—the whole journalistic process of approaching a nonfiction piece of work. That’s an important lesson for students.


In addition to your passion for journalism, you thrive on teaching and learning. How does your Regis Doctor of Education (EdD) degree come to life through your work? The EdD program was a critical catalyst for where I am in my career in higher education. I don’t think it would have been possible without that. I was a journalist before I entered Regis; I understood and lived the craft and lived it every day. But to translate that into a classroom is a very different dynamic. 

Understanding proper pedagogy—both the principles and the practice of teaching—is something the program has helped shape for me. This is particularly true when it comes to crafting my teaching philosophy, understanding the way that students learn, and identifying how I can help them through that process. Those were eye-opening experiences for me.


You come from a family of medical providers. What was their reaction to your book? My family is always my primary support and they’ve championed my book. My dad is a retired physician and very quiet person, but he has a presence; you know when you’ve done good work. At my book launch, I think he bought out the store and sent copies to all of our family members. 


What does Outbreak Culture signify for you? The relevance of it is so important to me. As every journalist does, I hope that the work I do effects change in some way.

When you have such a dysfunctional response to a pandemic, there is going to be a cost. The virus is this deadly backdrop, and people’s lives are the collateral damage. We must empower communities to act; the first and foremost goal is to protect our front line workers and ensure that they have the proper equipment to adequately respond in an outbreak. They are the true heroes.  


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