Don’t Buy Into Mass Coronavirus Hysteria

 Coronavirus has now spread to 81 countries after breaking out in Wuhan, China just a few weeks ago, with over 97,800 confirmed cases and 3,332 confirmed deaths as of March 5. As is typically the case with contagious diseases, false news, overblown risk assessments, and conspiracy theories have spread quickly, inducing plague-level fears surrounding a disease that is only slightly more of a risk to the global population than the common flu. And while everyone should doubtlessly be taking coronavirus seriously, the hysteria surrounding the disease, on both a social and governmental level, has realistically done more direct damage to global quality of living than the disease itself. Here’s why that hysteria is so dangerous.

First and foremost, the spread of disease and accompanying public hysteria have had a long legacy of motivating racism, anti-Semitism, and prejudice against minority populations; a legacy that we have already started to see in the past few weeks alone. The global spread of the virus has since been blamed repeatedly on Asian people, leading to racist attacks and public shaming of individuals who have nothing to do with the spread of the disease. In one case this past week, a 23-year-old Singaporean man living in London was punched in the face in a racist hate crime, during which the attacker reportedly yelled, “I don’t want your coronavirus in my country.”

Meanwhile, as public fears rise about the danger of the disease, individual consumers have begun purchasing critical medical supplies in bulk. Medical masks are necessary for individuals who could spread viral genetic material via coughing or sneezing, as well as for the health care professionals treating those patients. However, so many people are stocking up on masks that medical facility supplies have dropped to critically low levels. For a member of the general public, wearing a mask does not significantly decrease one’s risk of contracting the virus. Yet a general lack of public knowledge about appropriate preventive practices combined with public panic over diminishing supplies has resulted in a shortage so severe that the U.S. Surgeon General has requested that Americans stop buying masks altogether.

Finally, economic anxiety has caused a precipitous economic fallout. Stocks have plummeted in recent weeks as markets have responded to coronavirus fears. The financial consequences of coronavirus fallout, from decreased travel to low consumer purchasing, have had near-devastating impacts on global trade.

While coronavirus has yet to fully spread across the world, the damaging impacts of fear and hysteria certainly have. So what can we do to counter this panic and promote an effective global response?

First, take coronavirus seriously, but understand the facts. Recently, the World Health Organization estimated that the death rate of coronavirus is 3.4 percent, although this number is subject to change and is based only on early estimates. In comparison, the flu typically kills fewer than 1 percent — an important difference, but regardless, the vast majority of coronavirus cases are mild and pose little risk to immunocompetent people. Meanwhile, policy-decisions and government responses will also play a critical role in stopping the spread of coronavirus, with many countries already acting quickly to temporarily close schools and rush medical care to affected people. While difficult in the medium-term, these measures are critical to ensuring that the disease is kept away from those who are most vulnerable — children, the immunodeficient, and the elderly.

Second, be keenly aware of who is responsible for the negative impact of coronavirus upon the infected, their families, and their communities. Blaming racial and ethnic groups or private individuals for the spread of coronavirus is a counterproductive response which only motivates and animates xenophobia and anti-Asian racism. However, while these sorts of disasters are not explicitly manmade, their impact is guided and facilitated through policies that are crafted by people. The world’s poor will suffer the greatest consequences of this outbreak, primarily due to the lack of affordable and accessible public health care, even in highly developed countries such as the U.S. Policymakers and politicians who stand in the way of accessible health care reform should be held directly accountable for the damage done by coronavirus, not racial groups or private citizens.

Finally, practice effective transmission prevention. If possible, see a doctor immediately if you find out that you have come into contact with an infected person. Avoid crowded public spaces if the coronavirus is reported in your area, and encourage others to do so as well. Cough into your sleeve and avoid touching your face, nose, eyes, and mouth. And for the love of god, wash your hands. Coronavirus is a threat to everyone, but we can all do our part to ensure that its spread is limited and that it is kept away from those whom it is more likely to kill. Hysteria is the enemy of common-sense health policy, so the best advice is to simply stay level-headed and not buy into narratives of mass panic.