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On Saturday, Feb. 1, the Boston Public Health Commission confirmed that a University of Massachusetts Boston student tested positive for the novel coronavirus. This is now the eighth case in the U.S. The student sought medical care upon returning to Boston from Wuhan, China last week and is currently under the care of public health nurses. Unfortunately, as the coronavirus presents in Boston, so have virus myths and increasing xenophobia toward people of Asian descent.
To dismantle the misinformation driving this xenophobia, it’s important to understand the biological factors behind the outbreak.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC, coronaviruses are a family of viruses that can cause a range of symptoms from common cold-like respiratory symptoms to more severe presentations, as with the 2002 SARS outbreak. The current outbreak is labeled as the 2019-nCOV and it presents with mild respiratory symptoms like cough and fever, although this varies by patient and is still being studied.
The transmission pattern of the 2019-nCOV is currently unknown. But, based on previous coronavirus outbreaks, it is likely spread through person-to-person contact, especially through airborne respiratory droplets produced from coughs and sneezes. It is also important to note that not all viruses, including coronaviruses, have the same symptoms.
Based on the transmission patterns of previous coronaviruses, it is unlikely that the virus will spread from surfaces to people. There is currently no evidence that packages shipped from China, especially over many days and through many environments, are able to carry a contractible virus.
While it is currently unlikely that most U.S. citizens will come into contact with 2019-nCOV, there are a few important things that you can do about this outbreak. First, it’s important to practice good hygiene to prevent the spread of any virus, including more common and deadly viruses like the flu. Avoid close contact with people who are sick, stay home when you are sick to avoid infecting others, wash your hands with warm, soapy water for at least 20 seconds and do not touch your face with unwashed hands.
Second, there is no need for the healthy, general public to wear face masks. The CDC does not currently recommend wearing face masks to prevent the spread of the coronavirus in the U.S. This is because the virus does not presently pose a public threat enough to warrant this measure and because the transmission pattern is still being studied.
Importantly, the public’s fear and misunderstanding concerning this outbreak is creating unacceptable prejudice toward people of Asian descent. The main way of contracting 2019-nCOV is contact with someone diagnosed with 2019-nCOV, including recent travel to Wuhan, China where contact with diagnosed persons occurred. It should go without saying then that people of Asian descent are not at a higher likelihood of contracting this virus by these measures, and one of the most important things the public can do during this outbreak is to stop the spread of unfounded xenophobic fear. There is no reason to be concerned about contracting 2019-nCOV around classmates or roommates simply because they are from China.
But xenophobia persists on the institutional level. Last week the University of California Berkeley Health Services Center issued a pamphlet to students about the outbreak and listed xenophobia as a “common” reaction. Although they have since taken it down, messages like this push harmful public health narratives.
Another major player to blame in this spreading of myths and misinformation is the media. The Daily Mail, for example, ran a story this week using “KILLER VIRUS” in exaggerated, capital letters in their social media posts about the outbreak. This unnecessarily stokes fear and heightens mass confusion for their U.S. readership.
CBS Boston also issued a tweet with a clickbait headline of “Why Coronavirus Is So Dangerous.” The vague title’s exaggerative language perpetuates fear of the virus in the Boston community, which is foundless given that the Boston Public Health Commission and Mayor Martin J. Walsh assured that Boston is prepared to safely handle the virus.
In Northeastern’s community alone, the NU Meme Collective on Facebook issued a post on Saturday blocking all memes related to the coronavirus because of their xenophobic and racist sentiments. It is truly a problem that enough xenophobic memes were submitted about the outbreak that a rare announcement blocking them had to be released.
It is one thing to make light of stressful situations through humor, but it is entirely different and inappropriate to make jokes at the expense of the hundreds dying in this outbreak in China and to further perpetuate racist stereotypes at the expense of people of Asian descent.
Xenophobia ultimately stems from fear and misunderstanding. While it may seem enticing, it is ineffective to quell this fear by arguing with angry internet commenters posting racist sentiments about this outbreak, thus amplifying their voice. What is more valuable is sharing accurate resources and information about this outbreak with our online communities and in conversation to prevent xenophobia in the first place. Specifically, sharing the CDC’s coronavirus page which has ample resources and answers to frequently misunderstood questions.