Phillipian Commentary: Rumor & Rumor

Last Friday, my WeChat timeline was filled with expressions of anger and sadness about the passing of Dr. Wenliang Li, an opthamologist at the Center Hospital of Wuhan, the city where the 2019 coronavirus outbreak originated. He was infected with the novel coronavirus (nCoV), which is still an emergency epidemic in most of China and affects regions around the world. Among the hundreds (now over 1000 worldwide) of people who have died from nCoV, his death was especially tragic, because he is considered the “whistleblower” of the whole epidemic.

First recognized in December 2019, the epidemic has since spread to many countries via human travel. With how easily it is transmitted, a 5 to 6 day incubation period and the absence of a direct cure, and the growing fatalities in China and around the world, the virus has inspired both caution and fear.

While I personally don’t know anyone specifically from the city of Wuhan, hearing about my friends and family adjusting to working and studying from home and reading feature articles on people who have lost family members made me realize the gravity and severity of the situation. I soon saw how it was like every other epidemic: almost inevitably political.

On December 30, while mainstream press still called nCoV cases “pneumonia of unclear causes,” Dr. Li spread the word in one of his working group chats that the cases of pneumonia were SARS, which is an acute respiratory syndrome caused by a coronavirus. In retrospect, he was 100 percent correct, but his words were shot down as “untrue rumors” by the local police. Many took to social media to express their outrage at the government’s secrecy throughout the epidemic and the sense of injustice that innocent Li, having contracted the virus before officials recognized that human contact enabled the spread, passed away helplessly.

The lack of journalistic transparency has critically affected the spread of the epidemic. For example, unofficial articles written about Li were largely censored in a manner similar to other widely circulated, albeit informal and censored, exposés of the Red Cross Society and the provincial government. Considering that one major factor contributing to the contagion was people travelling in and out of the country for Lunar New Year, it would have been useful if the government allowed the publishing of reports about the nCoV outbreak and its methods of contagion. Naturally, people and organizations would have been able to react sooner, and the virus could have been contained. Held up by the filtering of information, few organizations in China were able to take action before an authorized plan demanded action from administrations at the regional level was finally put into place in January.

Many people are aware of the lack of transparency and dangers of concentrated power. One part of China’s political reality entails restricting instigative comments on social media in an attempt to maintain social order. With the rise of social media, there has been a number of tug-of-wars between citizens and the government, involving maintaining its tenuous Great Firewall, bashing the #metoo trend on Weibo, and overturning a ban of gay content on Weibo, after numerous netizens expressed their disapproval of the ban. In the nCoV epidemic, this system has stirred up controversy in light of Dr. Li and the lack of efficiency in the China Red Cross Society when it comes to distributing medical materials to those in need.

Widespread coverage of the epidemic, however, brought rumors in another direction. The Herald Sun, a newspaper based in Melbourne, Australia, published a red mask with the words “Chinese Virus Pandamonium” on it. The Associated Press also reported that the epidemic sparked anti-Chinese sentiments in many countries in the world. A Wall Street Journal op-ed published last week about financial risks and health risks in China was inadvertently titled “China is the Real Sick Man of Asia,” referencing a term used initially for the Ottoman Empire, but was also used to describe the divided and flailing Chinese government in the 19th and 20th century. This is not the first time a virus from a “foreign” land has been racialized because of the fear and ignorance surrounding the epidemic. In 2014, people in the United States overreacted to the Ebola virus, which primarily affected Africa and was only spread through bodily fluids. This hysteria was criticized for its racialized nature and serves as a reminder that no epidemic is truly apolitical.

While precaution is necessary, the most helpful thing to do is not to sensationalize the epidemic, pay attention to health officials and prevent caution from escalating into hysteria. Coronavirus does not exclusively affect Chinese people, nor does every Chinese person have it. There is nothing wrong about being extra careful and checking out any respiratory symptoms, but excessive worrying is counterproductive and unnecessary. It is also important to stop racialized attacks on the Chinese and Chinese-American community and extend a helping hand.The epidemic has inspired many people to reflect on the healthcare system in China, and hopefully the distress from nCoV will inspire change in China and around the world.