Panicky responses to coronavirus may create many more problems

Panicky responses to coronavirus may create many more problems

The new coronavirus is still spreading rapidly, in and out of China. By January 31, barely a month after the new pathogen's appearance on the world stage, already 62 countries had imposed restrictions on the entry of Chinese citizens. Against the World Health Organization's recommendations, China's neighbors, including North Korea, Mongolia, and Russia rushed to close their land borders with China, while the United States and Australia have shut down all borders to Chinese arrivals. In Hong Kong, chief executive Carrie Lam's decision not to fully shut the border with the mainland just gave another reason for the people to be angry at the government, as thousands of healthcare workers staged a strike to demand full border closure. Many countries evacuated their citizens from China. Airlines in Europe, North America, and Asia are canceling their flights to the country. Italy (with only two confirmed cases) and the United States (with 11 confirmed cases as of February 3) have declared public health emergencies over the virus. Russia went as far as to indicate that it would deport foreigners infected with the virus. More are expected to follow suit in the coming days. The international responses make the urgent request from China's U.N. ambassador for more medical supplies to help the country fight the virus look so pale and helpless. And on February 2, former Vice President Joe Biden criticized President Donald J. Trump's response to the outbreak by saying, "This is no time for hysterical xenophobia and fearmongering." To be fair, the rapid spread of the virus poses an immediate and present threat that justifies actions outside the normal bounds of political procedure. Emergency measures have helped mobilize political leadership and resources to address the challenges. But in the meantime, responses driven by fear may create many more problems than they could solve. First, they may complicate risk management by overestimating the danger of the coronavirus. The outbreak has hit the headlines, but the aggregate risk to human health may not be as high as all the attention would seem to indicate. As of February 4, more than 20,000 cases have been identified, including 427 deaths, almost all of which occurred in China. In contrast, as of January 18, the first few months of the flu season has witnessed 15 million cases of flu and 8,200 deaths worldwide. Yet it was the coronavirus that has elicited a high level of fear and panic. Such "dreaded risks," according to author and global security expert Jessica Stern, reduces the ability of policymakers to make accurate trade-offs between mundane but widespread risks and those that are high-profile but not so common. Second, they may lead to unnecessary social distancing measures, fueling exclusionary and dehumanizing responses against certain population groups. In China, panic over the virus has led people to shun outsiders, especially those from Wuhan, which is believed to be ground zero for the virus. Internationally, the fear has triggered anti-Chinese sentiment in some Asian countries. Xenophobically treating sick or exposed people, as opposed to the virus, as the enemy only complicates the crisis. Related Stories



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