Ebola: the anti-lottery

| October 16, 2014


Millions of Americans spend roughly $50 billion a year on lottery tickets, although the chances of a big payout are, well, very slim (see this great infographic — and, yes, just keep scrolling down). But the upside is so great — millions, tens of millions, even hundreds of millions of dollars — that over 50% of Americans buy at least one lottery ticket each year. Almost everyone who buys a lottery ticket will not see a large payout of any kind, but the lure, the possibility is still there. We are conditioned as a nation to embrace and act upon the very large consequences of very slim odds, whether it’s Powerball, Publishers’ Clearinghouse Sweepstakes, or American Idol. We are likewise conditioned — especially by social media — to recognize the minimal degrees of separation between any two of us.

Which brings us to the current Ebola situation here in the United States. Right now, the chances of getting Ebola here in the US are probably pretty close to the chances of winning the Powerball lottery, that is, about 1-in-150-million (e.g., 2 out of 300+ million have caught it so far). Those are very slim odds, astronomical odds, but the payout is a 70% chance of death, and a pretty wretched and horrible death at that. But we are used to believing that extremely rare circumstances can happen to us, and so we see Ebola as a threat — not necessarily to any large (or even small) segment of the population, but to a handful of individuals touched by fate or (ill) luck, and we fear that we could be the next person to show up on the Drudge Report.

In short, Ebola is an anti-lottery, a lottery of death, one that almost nobody will “win” but one we cannot opt out of except by extreme measures. The just-breaking news that Amber Vinson, the second nurse to come down with Ebola, may have had symptoms for a full week before she was hospitalized — during which she shopped for a bridesmaid dress, traveled to Cleveland and back from Dallas, and generally was out and about — just reset the lottery for all of us. And now we wait to see who, if anyone, draws the losing numbers.


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Category: Disasters, Ebola, Health and Fitness, Main, Pandemics

About the Author ()

Webster is Principal and Founder at Bruce F. Webster & Associates, as well as an Adjunct Professor of Computer Science at Brigham Young University. He works with organizations to help them with troubled or failed information technology (IT) projects. He has also worked in several dozen legal cases as a consultant and as a testifying expert, both in the United States and Japan. He can be reached at bwebster@bfwa.com, or you can follow him on Twitter as @bfwebster.

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