Protective masks have been flying off the shelves, global travel has been restricted and those infected or suspected of being so are in mandatory quarantines worldwide. These are just a few precautions being taken to counter the new, or novel, coronavirus, now officially coined COVID-19 by the World Health Organization (WHO). However, it is crucial to consider the effects the measures are having on the public's psyche and if this particular virus has shown signs that warrant widespread alarm.
Experts around the world have been calling for a level-headed approach in dealing with the novel coronavirus since it surfaced. Dr. Amesh Adalja, a specialist in emerging infectious disease, pandemic preparedness and biosecurity from Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, recently spoke with Al-Jazeera about the outbreak. He stressed the importance of remaining alert about what is going on in your community and keeping up to date through local and public health authorities. He also insisted that though unknown factors regarding this illness can be frightening, it isn't necessary to panic. "When you're in the early days of an outbreak, you often will hear about the worst cases first, the most severe cases that are in the hospital that are dying. But that doesn't reflect what this virus really does to the majority of people," he explained.
Though "flu" is a household word, many were not familiar with the term "coronavirus" until the new strain popped up in the Chinese city of Wuhan last month. However, coronaviruses are quite common and make up a large family of viruses that cause illnesses ranging from the common cold to more severe diseases like SARS.
Much like the flu, common symptoms of COVID-19 include respiratory congestion, coughing, fever and breathing difficulties, though severe cases can include infections that lead to pneumonia, kidney failure or more serious complications that could lead to death.
The prospect of death is always frightening; however, to put it in perspective, common flu viruses continue to claim thousands of lives every year in the U.S. alone, with the 2018-2019 flu season claiming 34,500 lives and the 2017-2018 season an astonishing 61,000. This year's flu season has already seen 31 million Americans suffer from the infection, with hundreds of thousands hospitalized – and it is only midseason. Having said that, the death rate for the flu is only 0.05%.
So far, there have been 71,335 reported cases of the novel coronavirus, resulting in 1,775 deaths worldwide. Of these, only 785 infections and five of the deaths occurred outside mainland China. Though there are many unknowns still surrounding this virus, medical professionals have pointed out that mild cases at the beginning of an epidemic often go untreated and unreported; instead, particular focus is given to the most serious, often deadly cases that then go on to dominate initial statistics. "And as we learn more about this virus and do more testing of people with mild illness we will see, case numbers will go up, but the fatality rate will go down," Adalja reassured. Research has so far found that most cases of the new virus are mild, cause symptoms similar to other known coronaviruses and that deaths are relatively rare.
So, with tens of thousands dying of flu-related issues every year in the U.S. alone, where is the mass panic for that annual loss? The essential difference is the lack of newness. Though the medical community is still unable to predict which flu strain will cause an epidemic, stocks of vaccines and anti-viral medications developed to combat the threat put our minds at ease. They lower the public's sense of risk, and the medical safety nets lend a sense of security and control. Likewise, the medical community has been studying seasonal flu for years, has amassed vast data and can relatively predict infection patterns for each season.
COVID-19, however, is so new that scientists are racing to find the best anti-viral cocktail, and a vaccine is believed to be at best months away. This leaves the public feeling vulnerable. To counter mass insecurity, experts and authorities must work to demystify the idea that something new automatically leads to an exceptionally serious threat, a point Adalja also noted during his interview. "Yes, it's going to be disruptive. Yes, it can be scary and information may shift, but it's really important that you keep it in context and understand that we deal with diseases like influenza, which kill much more and have a much bigger societal impact, every day."
Countering fake news
We are by nature always on the lookout for threats. When threatened, emotions like fear and dread start to creep in, leading to hunts for the scariest and worst-case scenarios that could cross our paths.
As an industry, the media has stepped in to provide copious examples of imminent threats for our anxiety to feed on. Headlines continue to highlight the ever-growing death toll, China's "secrecy," the unknowns, citywide lockdowns, overcrowded hospitals and mandatory quarantines. Recent headlines have even accused patients in Russia suspected of having the virus of "escaping" from their mandatory quarantine – as if they are criminals on the run. The tone used to convey information related to the novel coronavirus, especially that used by the media, plays a key role in how the threat is perceived, processed and reacted to by the public. Alarmist language only works to further stigmatize the illness and stokes worldwide panic.
Addressing the issue while speaking to foreign policy and security experts at the Munich Security Conference on Feb. 15, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus stressed: "We are fighting an 'infodemic.' Fake news spreads faster and more easily than this virus, and is just as dangerous. That's why we are also working with search and media companies ... to counter the spread of rumors and misinformation." He also called on companies, governments and news organizations to work with the WHO to "sound the appropriate alarm without fanning the flames of hysteria."
Any new disease is a cause for concern, but this virus, in particular, has popped up to create the perfect storm. Veiled in a shroud of mystery, a rising death toll and no known treatment, this novel coronavirus was bound to raise the public's blood pressure and have people running for their hand sanitizer. According to Tedros: "We have a choice. Can we come together to face a common and dangerous enemy? Or will we allow fear, suspicion and irrationality to distract and divide us? ... This is a time for facts, not fear. This is a time for rationality, not rumors. This a time for solidarity, not stigma."
It falls on the shoulders of authorities and the media to responsibly provide up-to-date information in a manner sensitive to the already anxious atmosphere; however, the public must also approach this new threat with common sense, set aside its tendency to crave drama and place their trust in the calm voices of experts for guidance.
* Senior copy editor at Daily Sabah