Now’s the time to be informed, not overly fearful

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You may have noticed that there is no formal narrative — only updates — on the novel coronavirus outbreak in this issue. This is not to undermine the gravity of the situation. The new strain of virus has interrupted the local Chinese community’s way of life, especially with the recent cancellation of Lunar New Year events and Chinese school classes.

However, social media has exaggerated the severity of the outbreak to an extent where a proper perception of the whole situation is hard to come by. Fear is spreading faster than the virus itself, when there is little need to stress about it in Pennsylvania. In fact, the state health department reports that there are currently no cases of coronavirus in Pennsylvania.

First, the basics. According to the World Health Organization, coronaviruses are a large family of viruses that are transmitted between animals and humans. They can cause a range of diseases from the simple common cold to the more serious Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS-CoV). The novel strain, 2019-nCoV, was first reported in Wuhan, China, and has not been identified in humans before. It likely originated in a wet market, a traditional market where fresh meat from wild animals is sold and where close quarters and unsanitary practices are common. As of Feb. 7, there are more than 37,500 documented cases and more than 900 deaths worldwide.

Across social media platforms is a spattering of xenophobic comments, pinning the blame for the coronavirus on the Chinese and them alone. But this ignorance should not be tolerated. Disease can start anywhere — even in the United States. For example, the West Nile virus resurged in the U.S. in 2012 simply because the conditions were right, according to Stephen Ostroff, a former member of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Some people call out China’s wet markets, saying that the selling of wild animal meat is too great a risk, but what they don’t understand is that the practice of buying freshly butchered rather than pre-packaged meat is a part of Chinese culture. In an interview on National Public Radio, Zhenzhong Si, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Waterloo who has done extensive research of China’s food sector for the past decade, said that wet markets are integral to the urban lifestyle in China. They are places where all residents can come together, socialize and buy fresh meat, an ambiance that is missing in Western-styled supermarkets. 

Eradicating the coronavirus shouldn’t start with eliminating such an important part of Chinese culture. In reality, nothing that drastic needs to be instituted. The World Health Organization reports that the disease is rarely fatal. In cases where people have died, it has been the elderly and those with pre-existing medical conditions, including diabetes and heart illnesses.

Looking at the larger picture, the hysteria surrounding the coronavirus is expected but not necessary. The novel coronavirus has a mortality rate hovering around 2% of those infected. On the other hand, the 2019 flu strain is more than three times as deadly, with conservative estimates of 19 million illnesses, 180,000 hospitalizations and 10,000 deaths this season in the U.S. alone, according to the CDC.

The reason we should care about coronavirus isn’t because it’s dangerous or deadly. Rather, we should care because coronavirus is a novel virus, and the transfer of disease between other species and humans is becoming an increasingly concerning trend in recent medical history (think AIDS, SARS, MERS, etc.). Instead of causing mass hysteria, coronavirus should serve as a channel for raising public awareness of modern health issues and drawing attention to the need for a greater understanding of curing viral diseases.

This is a chance for unity, not polarization. A Wuhan hospital was built in just 10 days, with 7,000 people working day and night at the risk of infection for the betterment of their fellow citizens. So don’t alienate others, empathize with them; don’t immediately trust any post you read on social media, stay informed by reading multiple sources — only then will we be able to make it out of this epidemic.