April 8, 2020

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Winnipeg Free Press


Health-scare misinformation spreads like a virus


Wash your hands. Don’t touch your face. Think before you tweet.

Those three tips may be your best defence against twin viruses: the coronavirus, as well as the viral spread of misinformation about it online.

Misinformation about the coronavirus has gone viral. (Chiang Ying-ying / The Associated Press)

Misinformation about the coronavirus has gone viral. (Chiang Ying-ying / The Associated Press)

A new member of the coronavirus family (2019-nCoV) was first identified in Wuhan, China, at the end of December. According to China’s National Health Commission, the death toll in China was at 170 as of Jan. 30. According to the World Health Organization, more than 7,800 people worldwide were infected as of Thursday, the majority of them in China. Canada, so far, has very few confirmed cases.

The virus’s symptoms include runny nose, headache, cough, sore throat and fever, and it can cause pneumonia.

The news of an outbreak of an infectious virus never before seen in humans can be frightening, especially when it comes on blaring emergency-red banners. Dynamic and rapidly evolving situations can make it hard to stay informed, especially with social media acting as an accelerant. Clear communication is a cornerstone of public health — we need to know what to do to keep ourselves safe and what our risks are — but we’re getting a front-row seat to what happens when a virus goes, well, viral.

Over the past couple weeks, the internet has been rife with coronavirus misinformation and wild conspiracy theories — including one involving the National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg. The theory claims that Dr. Xiangguo Qiu and her husband Keding Cheng, the two scientists who were escorted out of the Level-4 lab last summer, are actually a husband-and-wife spy team who were removed from the Winnipeg facility for sending the coronavirus to a Level-4 lab in Wuhan. The Public Health Agency of Canada has dismissed this as baseless.

Canadian public-health officials have not recommended masks or quarantine, and yet, many pharmacies in Canada are sold out of surgical masks. People are reacting out of fear, not fact.

Others are using the anxiety about the virus to justify their own xenophobia. Take the bat-soup panic, for example. Videos said to be showing Chinese people eating bats began circulating online after bats were identified as a possible carrier of the virus. The most popular clip, of a smiling woman eating a cooked bat, is not from China. It’s not even from this year. It’s a 2016 video of influencer and travel-show host Mengyun Wang during a visit to the island republic of Palau, where bat soup is a delicacy.

Under all the many shares of bat-soup photos and videos, there’s a common disheartening comment: "What’s wrong with these people?"

Many Chinese-Canadians are rightly concerned that the racism they experienced during the SARS epidemic in 2003 will rear its ugly head once again. It’s worth remembering, too, that SARS pre-dated social media. It’s so easy — too easy — now for xenophobic sentiments and misinformation to spread online. It’s incumbent on all of us to think critically about the sources of our information.

As for personal hygiene, Canadians would do well to worry more about the flu, which is much more common, can also be deadly and causes thousands of hospitalizations every year. Cover your coughs and sneezes. Stay home if you’re sick.

Wash your hands. Don’t touch your face. And think before you tweet.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board.

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