By: Vivian Tsao
When a disease outbreak causes mass panic, the public searches for the source of the pandemic and a community to blame. This time, the Chinese population is bearing the brunt of the panic. Xenophobia and public health have long been intertwined, as was the case with Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), Ebola, and now, the COVID-19 Coronavirus.
Three weeks ago a video of a woman being assaulted by a man calling her a “diseased b–” went viral; though still being investigated by the NYPD, the crime is believed to be a hate crime, as the woman was of East Asian descent and was seen leaving Chinatown wearing a surgical mask. At first glance, statements such as asking Asian people “do you have the Coronavirus?” may seem like a simple, harmless joke, but unpacking micro-aggressions like these reveal a larger problem.
Epidemics only heighten the already existing prejudice against Asian people. The concept of the “Other,” especially in the midst of a Sino-US trade war, fuels Western media’s motivation to paint Chinese people as the “enemy.” False claims coupled with fear bring these xenophobic assumptions to light. With social media platforms unable to prevent the spread of fake news, the misinformation seems to be spreading faster than the virus itself.
Dissecting these misconceptions about the Coronavirus is the first step to dispelling the xenophobic atmosphere clouding our knowledge of the serious outbreak. Multiple headlines have announced that the death toll for COVID-19 has officially surpassed the SARS epidemic. As of February 12, at least 1,300 people have died from the disease. What the headlines don’t tell us is that the morbidity rate is so far still lower than that of SARS. Even though COVID-19 is more contagious, it is not nearly as deadly. The number of deaths have been steadily rising, however it is important to acknowledge that the fatality rate is still estimated to be around 2.6%, while the SARS epidemic had a fatality rate of roughly 14-15%.
Our fearful way of thinking about disease is often tied to the medieval Black Death, which killed roughly half of the European population in the 1300s. The Black Plague showed us the potential consequences of a major pandemic. However, what should be emphasized is not the detrimental effects of one outbreak over 600 years ago, but rather that every disease works differently. Precautions are taken out of prudence, not fear of mass deaths.
While Coronavirus has dominated the 24-hour news cycle, a much more severe threat has been underreported – influenza. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that up to 30,000 flu deaths have occurred just in the past five months. “We need to be clear what our priorities are. The flu is a major emergency, and we cannot be distracted from what’s really important. It’s killing a lot of people,” said Dr. Carlos Del Rio, an Emory University School of Medicine professor in the Division of Infectious Diseases. “There are people who are being sensationalistic and trying to create a sense of panic, we have to be more careful and not buy into that,” he adds.
Lastly, whether or not the Coronavirus will spread to the United States is still uncertain. This uncertainty, however, has not stopped Americans from taking extreme and questionable precautions which have inadvertently fueled more fears and exaggerations of the current situation. Amazon vendors have sold out of surgical masks, even though experts continuously urge the public to stop buying them.
“Surgical masks don’t work. It doesn’t prevent you from getting the virus, it only stops it from spreading if you’re already sick,” warns Dr. Del Rio. The only respirator medical professionals and researchers have approved of is the N-95 respirator mask, which are used by certain healthcare workers. These respirators are designed to block out at least 95% of small airborne particles — if fitted correctly.
While these respirators are available for the public to purchase, doctors do not recommend them as a prevention tool because they are extremely uncomfortable and hard to wear correctly. “After a while, the respirator gets wet and moist, and it stops working,” Dr. Del Rio warns. According to the World Health Organization, the best method of prevention is to wash your hands frequently with soap and water.
We may feel overwhelmed and anxious by the amount of false information swarming our social media pages on a daily basis. When we feel worried and want to know more, we tend to refresh our news outlets or Google searches, which aggregates even more fake news into our stream. This may not always be helpful as not all news outlets are reliable. Dr. Del Rio warns against putting too much confidence in news outlets, and to stick with ones more reliable. He personally suggests sticking to the New York Times and STAT news coverages of the outbreak, but most importantly, to assess the information given to us critically and always check our sources before we spread erroneous information.
We will be updating DestinationEU with the latest news about the Coronavirus.