Belfast Telegraph

Ebola scare following Aer Lingus flight to Dublin was an overblown storm in a coffee cup

By Fionola Meredith

It was a sick and silly joke, but the reaction to it bordered on lunacy. Italian businessman Roberto Binaschi was on an Aer Lingus flight to Dublin when he took a sip from his daughter's cup of coffee. Before he handed it back to her, he wrote the words 'attenzione Ebola' on the plastic lid.

She, presumably, either smiled or rolled her eyes at this daft bit of nonsense from her dad, finished the drink and then, when the cabin staff came round to collect the rubbish, the empty cup was dumped.

That should have been the end of this utterly trivial non-story. Instead, an over-zealous flight attendant retrieved the cup, saw the offending words and effectively pressed the panic button.

When the plane landed in Dublin it was sealed off so that medical screening for the deadly virus could take place, then poor old Mr Binaschi was arrested, together with his wife and daughter and carted off to the nearest Garda station, where he spent a night in the cells.

Next morning he pleaded guilty "to engaging in threatening, abusive or insulting behaviour on an aeroplane contrary to the Air Navigation and Transport Act" and was fined €2,500.

To be honest, this story caught my eye because writing 'attention, Ebola' on my daughter's takeaway coffee cup sounds like the sort of tasteless, puerile thing that I might do myself if I was bored on a flight. That's often the nature of jokes: we laugh and mock the things that scare us the most.

Yes, it's crude and disrespectful to the thousands dead or dying from the disease in West Africa. But you would need to have taken leave of your senses to think that it could represent an actual threat.

When the cabin attendant went running in a tizzy to show the cup to the captain, why didn't he just tell him to wise up?

Simple common sense should have informed them that any traveller actually carrying the virus was hardly going to jot a cheery note to that effect on the lid of his coffee - similar to the way that Starbucks write a bastardised version of your name on your takeaway cup - just so nobody else would be tempted to use it.

And Judge Halpin needed the bumps on his wig felt when he said that he "could not think of a more serious offence" in the context of current Ebola fears. Chucking a disease-ridden corpse into the cockpit perhaps?

This is what happens when hysteria gets a grip on us: the higher brain functions - reason, logic, interpretation - fly out the window and pure animal fear takes over.

It plunges us back into our dark evolutionary past, when survival was a matter of staying hyper-vigilant against the constant threat of predators.

The tendency to catastrophise - automatically jumping to the worst case scenario, however improbable - is a carry-over from those days.

And it's precisely because we're so relatively safe and protected now that we react like Chicken Licken - mad with panic, convinced the sky is about to fall in - when faced with any kind of real or imagined danger.

Of course, the threat posed by Ebola is a real one and it must be taken seriously. But Ebola cannot be spread through casual contact, especially if a person shows no symptoms. The risks have become both distorted and magnified by hype, horror and magical thinking.

Look at the case of US nurse Kaci Hickox who, on her return from Sierra Leone, was held against her will, even after testing negative for the virus. That's not science, that's rampant scaremongering.

Years ago I was out for a drink with a friend who was HIV positive. In the course of the evening, I expressed an interest in a new kind of beer he'd bought and he offered me a sip to see if I liked it.

I was torn: the rational part of my brain told me that there was zero risk to me in drinking from the same bottle as my friend, but my irrational, superstitious side was internally screaming at me to refuse. After hesitating for a second, I took a swig of the beer.

It was no Princess Diana moment: I acted more out of confusion and an aversion to hurting his feelings than any kind of calm enlightenment. But I'm glad I did.

The beer was good. And what a surprise, I lived to tell the tale.

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