ANALYSIS: As hordes of panic-stricken Aussies begin stockpiling up on canned food as if nuclear holocaust is imminent, and with Asian restaurants and even doctors being avoided, a respiratory illness believed to have originated in China has also turned a whole lot of people instantly stupid and even more racist, writes Sarah McLean.
What started as a few Corona beer-related memes, conspiracy theories predicted by The Simpsons, ‘expert’ comments about the state of China, and the odd mocking jab at the Chinese for the improvised masks they have been seen wearing (examples include water cooler bottles and women’s sanitary items), has ended up forming the lighter side of one of the most deadly viruses to circulate the world since the 2003 SARS outbreak which saw 8,096 people fall ill worldwide, with 774 of them dying. The new strain of coronavirus that first hit China, and now about 60 countries in total, has been declared by the World Health Organisation (WHO) as a global health emergency and as of today, close to 100,000 people are thought to have been infected. And about 3,000 people across the globe have died due to complications caused by coronavirus.
Since December 12, 2019 – when the virus was first detected in Wuhan but information was not made readily available to the public thanks restrictions placed on Chinese Government controlled media – the numbers have gone from 27 infected and one dead, to 224 infected on January 13 when the virus went international. Since then, the numbers have not stopped rising. From January 28 to February 7, the death toll went up to 638, while the number of infected went from 4,515, to 31,485. Now a month on, the number of infected has just about tripled.
While news sources such as the ABC have labelled this virus as having “no end in sight”, other organisations, including the Australian Psychological Society (APS), have tried to address mounting worries and increasing panic. In a statement, APS President Ros Knight mainly called out the habit of relying on social media for all the latest, ‘reliable’ information about the virus, warning users to take a step back into the real world for the sake of their own and others’ mental wellbeing – particularly relevant and sound advice since the news that those infected by the virus in Australia are soon recovering, and not dying.
In that statement, Ms Knight was quick to quash all the fast-spreading rumours, misunderstandings, overreactions, and exaggerations which have surfaced on social media. “Psychologists [are working] to reassure the public by providing advice to help prevent people from becoming overwhelmed,” she said.
Ms Knight also highlighted that “panicking is not a helpful way to respond”.
“As humans, we are hardwired to be afraid of the unknown and of something that appears to be … uncontrollable,” she said.
“Exposing yourself to a constant stream of negative information takes a huge psychological toll.”
Ms Knight suggests we “avoid reading social media posts that warn of an apocalypse and [avoid getting] drawn into doomsday discussions” – something those ‘experts’ we still find in pockets of the traditional media as well as the whackier confines of Facebook et al have not held back in doing, further fuelling moral panic around the so-called doomsday that is upon us.
But despite the sound advice from people such as Ms Knight and other real experts on the matter, those ‘qualified’ Facebook ‘experts’ have not been deterred in offering their take on coronavirus, further contributing to the spread of chaos and misinformation, as well as the opportunity for mischief and satire.
Nothing is off limits in the misinformation war – a war full of Corona beer memes, Chinese food memes, photo albums of the Chinese, and frequent comments on where the virus originated – all of which are quickly spreading into and adversely affecting the lives of everyone on and off social media. Victoria’s Health Minister, Jenny Mikakos, just last week was forced to publicly chide racist Australian parents who are now refusing to have their children treated by doctors of ‘Asian appearance’ at Melbourne’s Royal Children’s Hospital. And restaurants across Australia serving Chinese and other Asian cuisine say they have noticed a significant drop-off in trade, with some saying they will soon be forced to shut their doors for good if hungry customers don’t return in coming weeks. Others meanwhile have been busy clearing supermarket shelves of toilet paper, anti-bactieral wipes and canned food, panicked by the possibility of a pandemic being declared in parts of the nation.
Some say an old episode of animated cartoon The Simpsons predicted the coronavirus many years ago (Image: The Simpsons)
Tampons and water coolers are just some of the new fashion accessories being adopted in China to avoid the spread of coronavirus (Image: Latestly)
While it may be quicker and easier to search all the information, facts and even cures (including, according to one fucked up suggestion – drinking bleach) one could possibly need while scrolling through social media, the debates that have been sparked are perhaps the real cause for concern.
In one case of overzealous reactions in the misinformation wars, two women in Brookvale, in Sydney’s north, ended up in hospital after being involved in a physical altercation, needing scans for possible brain injuries and treatment for other wounds. One of the women became unconscious during the altercation.
It was reported that the two women -who had only ever briefly communicated in a Facebook mums group page – had agreed to meet up in real life to continue a debate that both had become involved in over the effects of the coronavirus.
According to a report posted by Northern Beaches police on social media soon after the incident (but then deleted as the story began receiving traction) the women, aged 33 and 36, continued beating each other up even when others tried to stop them a number of times.
“The argument quickly escalated from verbal to physical; pushing, slapping, hair pulling and finally both on the ground, briefly unconscious, all despite the efforts of bystanders trying to intervene,” Northern Beaches Police said on its Facebook page.
In this mixed case of ‘facts’, racism, moral panic and doomsday talks (not to mention stupidity) gone out of control, clearly there were no winners. Still, the uncalled-for panic and hysteria carries on.
No one, not even the Prime Minister, is safe from these wars either. In a rather stumbling address about preventing the spread of the virus within Australia – rigorous screening and self-isolation are some of the “further steps” being put in place while we await hard working scientists to come up with a vaccine, the untrustworthy ‘Scotty from Marketing’ snarked – the PM attempted to reassure the public, reiterating the same travel advice that has been given out by numerous authorities before him. According to him, the “wellbeing” of all Australians during this time is his “first priority”. He then banished Australian citizens returning from China to Christmas Island to gain the experience for a fortnight of how the government mistreats refugees. Once again, the Facebook ‘experts’ were quick to contribute their views – and not just on the PM, though he was labelled a “pretender” by some.
Others, however, turned this comment section into a forum to discuss the safety of importing and eating food from China, its quality, and whether it actually ever has been safe for consumption. This then turned into a competition to see who could quote the right facts (or rather spread the most misinformation) about how coronavirus works. Plenty of mixed (Facebook) reactions ensued on each comment.
Meanwhile, in Toronto, Canada, one man has tried too hard to make light of the situation by hoaxing a plane full of passengers when he proclaimed (proudly, too) that he had contracted the virus, before taking selfies amongst disgruntled passengers. What he thought to be a fun and harmless prank turned into a rather costly day for Canadian airlines. Several flights ended up being delayed or cancelled. The man was taken into police custody, booking himself a one-way ticket to court (on a charge of mischief).
But extreme panic and hoaxes aren’t the only thing going around amidst the coronavirus outbreak. Racism is sure to follow at a time like this, on and off social media. And while plenty of Aussies have used the opportunity the coronavirus has provided to engage in some good old fashioned Sinophobia but with a new fangled digital twist, CBC recently reported that two Asian men in Canada were asked by a white woman, “Do you have the Chinese disease?” – a rather ridiculous, if not misinformed and overtly racist way to (over)react.
It appears, then, that a lot of the fuel for this misinformation war, though professionally handled and (almost) quashed by agencies such as the APS and others worldwide, will also be perpetually fuelled by varying outlooks and racist panic.
Now, while some of the reactions have been done in fun, or are quite clever and harmless – the Corona beer and other memes amongst them – and while stupidity and doomsday talks will continue to spread across social media, it is important to continue (or begin, as is the case for some) to face the real facts.
If we are to survive the misinformation wars, survive the panic and save our mental wellbeing, we must take on the advice of the real experts such as the APS and WHO. Coronavirus is a real, quickly escalating threat – it is not something gained by drinking too many of those crisp Coronas (although there are suggestions the beer is being avoided by more).
It’s time to stop engaging with ‘reliable’ sources such as Facebook and begin taking the advice of the WHO and APS seriously – no matter how many times their warnings and advice have been subjected to mockery and the opinions of the Facebook ‘experts’. Either that, or continue stockpiling on the baked beans and start building yourself a underground doomsday bunker. Humans are capable of the worst when provoked by racism and stupid propaganda.