On my way back to Astor Place the other night, I realized something different on the 6 train: masks. It seems as if every other subway rider wore a white surgical mask and stayed alert of their surroundings. If they weren’t wearing a mask, they weren’t touching the poles. And if they weren’t touching the poles, they were like me, looking for face masks everywhere online.
Unfortunately, everywhere was sold out. Not one pharmacy in New York City had extra stockpiles of these masks. It almost seemed as if New York City was panicking at this global outbreak, and large-scale health measures had already taken place.
However, it is the exact opposite in various forums on the internet. With memes of the coronavirus on every social platform, few seem to be taking the situation seriously. But why? The urgency of the outbreak necessitates a serious reaction. While people joke, others die daily in China and other affected areas.
At this time, 17,384 people have been infected worldwide and at least 362 people have died in total. In the United States, five cases of the Wuhan coronavirus have been reported, raising concerns about a potential global pandemic. We’ve seen this story before during the 2003 SARS outbreak, as health authorities try to walk the thin line between outbreak preparation and excessive alarm when working with threadbare data. The spread of misinformation is a serious danger when considering what domestic and global health organizations must do to counter the outbreak.
Last week, a special committee set up by the World Health Organization decided not to declare the outbreak a global health emergency. The WHO committee is dealing with a difficult decision, as it faces a global health crisis with insufficient evidence. More must be learned on how the virus differs from previous strains of the coronavirus. Moreover, these statistics show that as more data becomes available, surveillance and quarantine can be effective measures to combat the strain. In a time when information is limited, health organizations have to be careful not to deal in fear-mongering.
Both the public and individuals in online circles must not panic. Rather, attitudes on the coronavirus must be changed and take into consideration the actions being taken by global health organizations. In the same vein, individuals must wait for more evidence to seriously understand the effects of the Wuhan strain. This is especially important considering the large amounts of misinformation on social media surrounding the coronavirus. These lies include wrong health advice and misinformation regarding the origins of the outbreak. The spread of wrong information only has the ability to hurt public health initiatives.
Opinions expressed on the editorial pages are not necessarily those of WSN, and our publication of opinions is not an endorsement of them.
A version of this article appeared in the Monday, Feb. 3, 2020 print edition. Email Kenzo Kimura at [email protected]