Photo by Ani Kolleshi on Unsplash

There is new information coming out about coronavirus every day. However, the problem facing many of us now is not fever, dry cough, or shortness of breath. It’s that a lot of the information being spread is not true.

What is coronavirus, and what has been its toll?

  • Coronaviruses can cause illness in animals or humans. In humans, several coronaviruses cause respiratory infections ranging from the common cold (meaning many of us have already had a coronavirus) to more severe diseases such as Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). The most recently discovered coronavirus causes coronavirus disease COVID-19.
  • COVID-19 first appeared in Wuhan, China, in early December 2019. The source is suspected to be a “wet market,” which sold both live and dead animals and where hygiene standards are difficult to maintain. Several individuals who visited this market developed COVID-19; however, the individual with the first reported case became ill on December 1st, 2019, and had no link to the market.
  • Symptoms appear within 14 days of exposure: fever, cough, and in some cases, viral pneumonia.
  • The disease mostly spreads when a person with COVID-19 coughs or exhales and small droplets from the nose or mouth land on objects and surfaces. Someone else touches those places, then touches their eyes, nose or mouth.
  • As of March 10th, the U.S death toll from COVID-19 is 31 out of 1,015 people who have tested positive. Globally, the disease has infected more than 113,000 people, and 4,000 have died from the disease.
  • Over 95 countries have confirmed cases as well as 38 U.S States and Washington, D.C.
  • There is currently no vaccine to prevent coronavirus.

Fast spreading myths about coronavirus:

  • “Young people are not affected by the disease.” While the fatality rate ages 10–39 is 21.7% lower than that of ages 80 and above, anyone can get sick; younger people are just less likely to have severe symptoms.
  • “A face mask will protect you from COVID-19” or “Face masks don’t work” Neither is true. See why below.
  • “COVID-19 is no more dangerous than seasonal flu.” Current estimates for the coronavirus mortality rate is 1%, making it ten times more dangerous than the seasonal flu, which kills about 0.1 percent of people who become infected. The partial truth in this statement is that the flu has had much more impact on Americans. Still, if someone does get coronavirus, they are unlikely to die from it.

Dr. Seema Yasmin, director of the Stanford Health Communication Initiative studies the concurrent spread of rumors and misinformation during epidemics. In her words, “The disease is not the only thing that spreads. We also get rumors and health hoaxes, misinformation, and emotional contagion as well.”

Mid-February, I first learned about coronavirus from The New York Times’ The Daily podcast episode titled: “Fear, Fury, and the Coronavirus.” Back then, I saw the issue as such: the Chinese government stifled a doctor’s efforts to address a disease that later became an epidemic. On December 30th, 2019, Dr. Li Wenliang of Wuhan, China, was summoned to a Public Security Bureau in response to sharing a warning to medical colleagues about an outbreak of a virus that he thought looked like SARS. There, police forced him to sign a letter in which they accused him of “making false comments” that had “severely disturbed the social order.” Dr. Li was rightfully concerned since that virus turned out to be COVID-19. After unknowingly treating a patient who had coronavirus, Dr. Li Wenliang later died of the disease.

The fact that COVID-19 may have had its first outbreak in China does not designate it a “China problem” nor is the disease “predominantly transmitted by Chinese people.” The public’s apparent hysteria and depleting stores of face masks and disinfectant wipes, is perhaps due in part to a lack of trust in our own government. In 2018, Donald Trump eliminated the entire Global Health Unit of the National Security Council. This likely contributed to the United States’ slow response to the current crisis in comparison to countries such as South Korea and Switzerland. When institutions in charge of our well-being fail us, we respond with fear and desperate attempts at self-preservation.

We might also want to examine now, and even after the outbreak of COVID-19 passes, why we were not already practicing good hygiene. For example, since 2017, I have attended a small liberal arts college that does not provide paper towels or any other hand drying method in residence hall bathrooms. Finally, in the wake of the COVID-19 epidemic, my school began offering a way for students to dry their hands.

Source: an email sent on March 10th by the Dean of Students

In some ways, suddenly becoming frantic about hand-washing and regularly wiping surfaces seems too little late. A 2018 USDA study found that before meals, people failed to wash their hands correctly 97 percent of the time. Why were we not already washing our hands properly ? Why have I spent three years at school without paper towels?

Over the last month, I’ve witnessed what Dr. Yasmin referred to as “emotional contagion” and false information’s negative impact. The issues range from violence against Asian civilians to an email from an airline promising me hand sanitizer if I keep my March flight.

Firstly, racism, xenophobia, and violence in any form is never an answer to a public health crisis or anything for that matter. Secondly, according to the CDC, “Although alcohol-based hand sanitizers can inactivate many types of microbes very effectively when used correctly, people may not use a large enough volume of the sanitizers.” So the pocket-sized amount I’ll be “gifted” during my flight is unlikely to make a significant difference.

So what will help?

  1. Wash your hands regularly with soap and water for at least 60 seconds especially after returning from a public place.
  2. Avoid touching your eyes, nose, mouth with unwashed hands since our hands touch many surfaces throughout the day.
  3. If you are in close contact with an infected person, wearing a face mask cuts the chance of them passing on the disease. Wearing masks in everyday situations has little benefit.
  4. Avoid spreading fake news about the illness by fact-checking the information you consume yourself. The first results you see while searching for information are not always the most accurate. Historically, less-relevant or even harmful articles have been able to appear towards the top of search result pages based on search engine optimization.

If you are reading something from an official or credible source such as the CDC or The New York Times, you can probably trust the information you are consuming. However, someone in your social circle writing on Facebook that “They heard…” or a seeing a funny meme with a coronavirus-related caption is often not enough. Three questions you can ask yourself to fact check what you are hearing, seeing, or reading are:

  1. Who is behind this information?
  2. What is the evidence for their claims?
  3. What do other sources say about the organization and its claims?

While sudden outbreaks of any illness are frightening and disruptive, we should try to be calm, clean, and keep only reliable facts in the information ecosystem.

Storyteller, scholar, feminist, writer of prose and code.

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