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It’s Not the Germs That’ll Get You

When we fear the coronavirus, we fear the wrong threats

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The coronavirus has taken the world by storm. The World Health Organization (WHO) officially declared it a global emergency late last month, and it is now possible that the situation could reach pandemic status.

Responses have been dramatic. On January 23rd, China put the entire city of Wuhan, where the virus first emerged from one of their famous wet markets, on lockdown, followed by the entire province of Hubei. Airlines around the world have cancelled flights in and out of China, and cruise ships full of passengers have been quarantined offshore. The United States, France, Spain, Portugal, Italy, and Sweden are just some of the countries that have airlifted their citizens on emergency flights out of China, setting up quarantine facilities to contain any carriers. Despite these measures, the disease continues to spread across Asia, Europe, and the US.

The scene sounds like something out of a Hollywood blockbuster, and citizens are scared. Similar to when SARS broke out in 2003, people are regarding Chinese nationals – and anyone who looks Asian – with suspicion. Chinatowns in the United States and Europe are deserted, despite having no more likelihood to be vectors for the disease than any other city. In universities, supermarkets, and elsewhere, multiple instances of xenophobic backlash have been reported. And on social media, conspiracy theories and misinformation abound, inflaming fear and loathing.

“People with a different national, ethnic or religious background have historically been accused of spreading germs regardless of what the science may say”, says Monica Schoch-Spana, a medical anthropologist and a Senior Scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. During an outbreak of H1N1 swine flu in 2009, Mexicans and Latinos were similarly scapegoated, as were people of African descent during the 2014 Ebola outbreak. History reminds us that Jews in Europe were likewise accused of spreading the plague. And though some are using social media to push back against racism, it is proving to be an uphill battle. In France, the hashtag #JeNeSuisPasUnVirus – meaning “I am not a virus” – is being widely used.

But the real danger of the coronavirus isn’t in the illness it may cause: it is in the crashed economy, the spread of conspiracy and misinformation, and unchecked xenophobia. Together, these three perils do more damage to global society than any virus.

How Bad Is It, Really?

If an individual has survived the flu, it is likely they can survive the new coronavirus. Though the former is normally caused by influenza strains, many cold and flu-like diseases are produced by coronaviruses – a class of virus named for its structure – and most of them are survivable. A vast majority of those who have succumbed to the disease have been elderly or dealing with underlying medical conditions that already significantly impacted their health.

SARS, for example, was a type of coronavirus – though it spread much more slowly than the strain being dealt with now. By the time the emergency was over in 2003, barely more than 8,000 cases had occurred. And MERS has been in circulation since 2012, but little more than 2,000 cases have been reported. In contrast, this virus is more infectious and a lot more like the flu. However, both SARS and MERS are far deadlier than today’s coronavirus. MERS kills approximately one in three of those it infects, and SARS one in ten. Today’s coronavirus has a death rate of 2 percent, though the number may be lower due to under-reporting. By all accounts and statistics: influenza is deadlier.

Though over a thousand cases have been reported in Europe – particularly in northern Italy – the African continent is facing the highest risk. More than one million Chinese people work and live on the continent, and many Africans do the same in China – leading to a huge amount of traffic that can rapidly spread a pathogen through a population.

The best way to prevent catching the coronavirus is taking the same precautions you would to avoid catching the flu. Wash your hands, cough into your elbow, and stay home if you’re feeling sick.

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Widespread disease outbreaks cause massive hits to global finance and relations, and the coronavirus is no exception. China’s stock markets dropped 8 per cent on the first day of trading after the Lunar New Year, with European markets seeing their worst day since Brexit in 2016 this past Monday. Compounding issues, it is possible that the coronavirus may postpone or even disrupt Chinese investment in southern Europe – a move the region cannot afford. Copyright: katjen / Shutterstock.com

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The Price of Misinformation

The ubiquity of social media means that misinformation about the coronavirus, including fraudulent miracle cures and xenophobic commentary, continues to spread and leaves with it a state of fear and confusion.

Though many concerned individuals are not malicious, some are, in fact, deliberately acting in bad faith and have found opportunity to boost traffic to their online pages or line their own pockets. Some viral tweets recommend drinking bleach as a cure. Elsewhere, YouTube videos accusing various governments of a cover-up are gaining popularity. Other accounts concern vaccines for the virus, which are very far from development, and anti-vax conspiracies are gaining traction. Even some newspapers have printed misinformation and hyperbole, which have been widely shared on social media, after which corrections struggle to receive the same attention.

“It’s the perfect intersection of fear, racism and distrust of the government and Big Pharma”, said Maarten Schenk, co-founder of the fact-checking site Lead Stories. “People don’t trust the official narrative.”

“Rumors can travel more quickly and more widely than they could”, in an era before social media, said Thomas Rid, Professor of Strategic Studies at Johns Hopkins University. “That of course lends itself to conspiracies spreading more quickly. They spread more widely and they are more persistent in the sense that you can’t undo them.”

To help stem the tide of false information, Twitter is directing its users to reliable sources. “We’ve launched a new dedicated search prompt to ensure that when you come to the service for information about the #coronavirus, you’re met with credible, authoritative information first”, the social media site wrote in a blog post.

Facebook’s fact-checkers have also been labelling misinformation posted on their platform, as well as promoting educational pop-ups, but there is still difficulty in addressing information spread in private groups, which acts as an incubator for conspiracies. China has had difficulties cracking down both on misinformation and anti-government sentiment posted on WeChat and Weibo. Meanwhile, the use of traditional Chinese medicine to treat coronavirus is also on the rise, as supplies run out and science has yet to find a way to halt the disease in its tracks, even as new hospitals are being built in less than two weeks.

“Early days in an outbreak, there’s so much uncertainty. People don’t like uncertainty. They want answers”, said Timothy Caulfield, a health law professor at the University of Alberta. “Social media is a polarisation machine where the loudest voices win. In an outbreak, where you want accurate, measured discourse, that’s kind of a worst-case scenario.

Economic Impact

Widespread disease outbreaks cause massive hits to global finance and relations. After the US released a travel advisory warning their citizens to avoid visiting China, the latter accused the United States of fearmongering. Airlines have grounded their China routes, and holiday celebrations and sports events around the world have been cancelled or postponed.

“There is no reason for measures that unnecessarily interfere with international travel”, Hua Chunying, a spokeswoman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, said in a statement earlier this month. Hua said the US “hasn’t provided any substantive assistance to us, but it was the first to evacuate personnel from its consulate in Wuhan, the first to suggest partial withdrawal of its embassy staff, and the first to impose a travel ban on Chinese travellers. What it has done could only create and spread fear, which is a very bad example”.

The World Health Organization agrees. “There is no reason for measures that unnecessarily interfere with international travel and trade”, the WHO’s Director-General, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told the Executive Board in Geneva. “The chance of getting this (virus) going to anywhere outside China is very low, and even in China when you go to other provinces, it’s very low.”

The cost of fear is measured in money. With travel to and from China halted for the time being –except for Europe and the United States airlifting their citizens out – the tourist, entertainment, and hospitality sectors have taken a massive hit during what is normally a very busy season. Cities around the world are feeling the pain.

Elizabeth Chin, a travel agent and the chairwoman of the trade group New York Chapter of the Pacific Asia Travel Association, noted that “It’s going to be a serious financial burden. The flights are cancelled. The tour operators have cancelled”. There are approximately 300 cancellations so far and counting. Over one million Chinese nationals visited New York City in 2018, representing approximately 1.6 percent of the 65 million tourists the city sees – and monetarily benefits from – each year.

Europe’s Chinatowns are faring similarly. “Compared to the last few months, we lost around 50 percent of our customers”, said Martin Ma, the general manager of Jinli, a restaurant with two locations in London. “The reason is the virus.

Tourism Economics, a group that conducts travel-industry research, is predicting a 28 percent drop in visitors to the United States from China in 2020, representing billions less in spending. The conclusions were based on the SARS outbreak, which lasted about four months, and the travel industry’s rebound later that year. It took three years for the tourism numbers to bounce back, and the same can be expected for tourism to and from Europe as well.

Financial markets are feeling the pinch, too. China’s stock market plunged 8 percent on the first day of trading after the Lunar New Year, when markets re-opened. To offset the deleterious economic impact, the People’s Bank of China (PBOC) has pumped hundreds of billions of euros worth of yuan into the financial system. In the past two days, the PBOC has injected 1.7 trillion yuan (over 200 billion euros) through open market operations. European markets saw their worst day since Brexit in 2016 on February 24, with the United States seeing stocks drop even further the following day.

Nor does playing the financial market offset the disruptions to supply chains. In today’s increasingly interconnected world, countries are dependent on each other for different materials, supplies, manufacturing, and even oil and energy. Interrupting this system, even only temporarily, causes massive global financial pain. It also doesn’t address the lost wages for those who were sick, or their caregivers who had to stay home and nurse their loved ones.

It is possible that the coronavirus may postpone or even disrupt Chinese investment in Southern Europe, which the region can ill afford to go without. China is a major investor in Greek shipping and their Piraeus Port, and seeks to turn the country’s largest port into one of the leading container terminals in Europe within the next four to five years. China also invested in Greece’s electric grid after the EU did not sufficiently fund the project.

Meanwhile, the country has pumped billions into Portugal during their years of austerity, leaving China a powerful ally within the EU to defend cooperation and trade, despite growing European suspicion. Some have accused Portugal of being “China’s special friend”, a rhetoric that Foreign Minister Augusto Santos Silva rejects. Silva told the Financial Times that “a myth has been created that Portugal is some kind of a special friend of China in Europe. That makes no sense at all”.

Even so, China’s Belt and Road Initiative, a global development and investment venture that China leverages to gain influence abroad, does remain at work in Southern Europe. “There is no doubt that the Chinese will continue to invest in small EU countries in a bid to increase their influence”, said Ilídio Serodio of the Portuguese-Chinese Chamber of Commerce in Lisbon.

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B. Lana Guggenheim

Lana is a freelance journalist based in New York City. She has a M.Sc. in International Conflict from the London School of Economics and Political Science. She has worked as an analyst, reporter, and editor, covering extremism, culture, economics, and democracy.

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