Allaying people’s novel coronavirus fears
Whether it’s people all over the region wearing N95 masks or municipalities refusing to accept OFWs from China, whether it’s taxi drivers turning down Chinese-looking passengers or urban dwellers staying away from malls for the time being, fear is at the heart of people’s reactions to the novel coronavirus (nCoV) outbreak.
The sensationalist coverage of the outbreak, both in mainstream and social media, has doubtless contributed, if not exacerbated, these fears, with stories ranging from patently false conspiracy theories to the exaggerated reporting of facts. It has not helped that the outbreak started in China—an authoritarian state known for its lack of transparency during previous health crises.
On one hand, these fears are understandable, given how disease outbreaks tap into humanity’s primeval fears of contagion and death. Who can blame people for wanting to survive? In this context, fear is not entirely negative, as it can drive people to practice measures long preached by public health professionals. For instance, I see more people washing their hands in mall restrooms.
Nevertheless, fear can have a number of adverse consequences. In the absence of any tangible signs of an invisible disease (no, President Duterte, you cannot slap a virus), race has become its visible proxy, leading to racial profiling that, while mostly unintentional, can be hurtful to the people on its receiving end. The case of the drunk Korean abandoned in the street of Manila speaks of racialized notions of illness that can get in the way of empathy and rational thinking, while the case of Adamson University, which initially ordered its Chinese students to “observe self-quarantine” for 14 days, speaks of how dangerous these notions can be when translated into misguided policies.
While this “xenophobia” is secondary to fear (note that even OFWs can face stigma in the Philippines, and within China, people from Wuhan are being shunned), it can also be conflated with preexisting attitudes. In the case of the Philippines, resentment over the Chinese government’s policies — and Mr. Duterte’s seeming acquiescence to them — has dominated the political discourse, leading some to even question an innocuous LED banner in Edsa calling on people to “Pray for Wuhan.”
This brings us to another consequence of fear: its being misused for political gain. In my own research with the sociologist Nicole Curato on what we term “medical populism,” we found that political actors tend to simplify and “spectacularize” medical crises, mobilizing people’s fears, encouraging divisions (e.g. Filipinos vs. Chinese) and demanding immediate, dramatic responses. While drastic steps are truly warranted at times, populist demands (e.g. Trump’s “Stop the flights!” tweets amid the 2014 Ebola outbreak) can get in the way of technocratic, evidence-based solutions, to the detriment of public health and national interest.
Given the negative consequences of people’s fears, allaying them should be recognized as one of the government’s top priorities.
Singapore offers a masterclass in this respect. At the height of the outbreak, amid reports of face masks being sold out, the government announced that it is distributing four masks to each household, or over 5 million masks in total. Even though government ministers stressed that the masks are in fact unnecessary, the act of distributing them communicated to an anxious public the idea of a government in control, and a government that cares for the people. The masks, in other words, had a “symbolic efficacy” that the government understood and utilized.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong likewise contributed in allaying people’s fears through his statements, underscoring the value of risk communication. In a widely shared video, Lee acknowledged citizens’ concerns, explained the current knowledge about nCoV, and discussed measures the Singaporean government is taking to control the outbreak. Crucially, he delivered his speech in a calm and authoritative manner.
Such projections of caring, confident, and competent leadership can surely help soothe people’s anxieties, and are worth emulating by our own leaders as well as those in the region.
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