How Fear of Ebola Could Impact the US Economy

"Aversion behavior" may impact the way Americans spend their time and money.

"People become afraid by talking to someone else who is fearful or seeing someone else get the disease," said Ross Hammond, economist and director of the Center on Social Dynamics and Policy at The Brookings Institution.

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"When people become afraid of catching a disease, and they change their behavior or keep their kids home from school, or stay home from work or cancel a trip, that of course has economic effects," he said.

Here are some potential consequences:

In Texas, where the first person in the U.S. has been diagnosed with Ebola earlier this week, some parents have already chosen to withhold their children from school in fear of contagion. That means people will have to say home with their children, possibly affecting the level of workplace productivity.

In his 2009 study, Hammond had estimated that closing all U.S. schools in response to the H1N1 for four weeks would cost $10 billion to $47 billion.

Airline stocks have dropped this week, in part, due to fears that the virus may hinder Americans' willingness to travel.

People may choose to not travel -- either internationally or domestically -- and that can affect the airline and tourism industry.

Any economic impact on the stock market or in travel is not the impact of the disease per se but the impact of largely irrational "aversion behavior,” Mead said. “The impact of aversion behavior on the markets is like a speculative bubble, but in reverse," adding he expects this “reverse bubble” to collapse in a matter of weeks, as Americans realize that a strong public health system can protect them.

Meanwhile, Hammond's other research shows fear can help spread an epidemic as well as help contain it.

"So when the effects of something are severe, people tend to assume that it’s also somewhat more likely," he said.

But Columbia Business School Professor Amit Khandelwal said it's too early to know if companies are changing their business decisions.

"I’m not worried in the slightest about this, and I can’t imagine this holding back businesses from sending managers to Texas," he said.