One topic I feel like needs addressing since I live in Japan (one of the countries most affected by the current situation) is the outbreak of COVID-19, or Coronavirus. I’ve heard and read insane stories of panic building up even in Czech Republic, so I would like to debunk some myths and tell you how Japan is dealing with the situation.
First of all, some quick facts about the virus; hint: it is not so scary after all. For now, it seems to have a mortality rate of about 1 to 2%. While this is higher than the rate for common flu, and may rise over time, it is significantly less than SARS in 2003 (9.6%) and swine flu in 2009 (17.4%). The flu kills more people every year in single countries, than the coronavirus has killed so far around the world. (i.e. 2017-2018 flu season in Spain killed 15,000) It's this major closeup media charade that is blowing it out of proportion. The mortality rate of people less than 50 years old is below 0.4%. So the actual reason why people act in irrational panic is because this virus is so mild, many people don’t even know they have it and many who get it are asymptomatic or suffer only mild common flu-like symptoms. And the number of cases globally is likely to be massively under-reported because people are either unaware they have it or don’t want to spend 14 days in quarantine.
Second of all, how does the situation look here in Japan? Due to people washing their hands a lot more diligently and around 90% of people in wear face masks in public now, the Japanese Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare concluded that cases of flu have decreased tremendously. This is not surprising to a nation who is used to wearing masks. We wear masks in public when we: a. Are sick and don’t want to infect others; b. Know that it’s flu season and don’t want to get sick; c. (bonus) When Japanese girls don’t want to wear makeup that day and they want to hide their face. HOWEVER, masks are not going to protect you against the virus 100%. I’ve seen crazy photos circulating on the Czech internets with those green, one layer surgical masks, but it’s only the more airtight, fitted face masks, preferably with actual air filters or at least several layers that will be efficient in blocking out most harmful particles etc.
Apart from increased mask usage, Japanese government has issued several measures to help halt the spread of the virus, by mostly cancelling large events (concerts, theatre plays) and recommending several institutions such as high schools to close down for a couple weeks. This makes complete sense, because after all it IS the large gatherings of people where one is more prone to getting infected - but that can be said of the common cold as well.
One key player that benefits from this outbreak is: mainstream media. Traditional media, sadly, is fighting a battle for relevance and credibility, triggered by social media, self-serving proprietors and antagonistic politicians. In many ways, for global networks like CNN, Al Jazeera and the BBC, a pandemic is a godsend. Although it may soften advertising demand, it also draws millions of new viewers and reinforces the networks’ capacity to provide continuous, quick, accurate (and occasionally overblown) updates about the spread of the disease. So why not leverage it?
Another key player is: social media. Social media is an unregulated and unprincipled juggernaut. Since the start of the Covid-19 outbreak in January, it has spawned all manner of misinformation and conspiracy theories, fuelling fear and disturbing levels of Sinophobia, as well as a raging black market in masks and other protective gear. Rumours about disrupted supply chains have triggered panic buying of everything from toilet paper to rice.
So how do we stop the panic?
Share the message that the sky isn’t falling. Go about life with common sense and compassion, not fear. Travel bans are not the answer, as WHO has said, albeit quietly. Conduct exit screening at airports and transport terminals, as well as on arrival. Wash our hands regularly, eat sensibly and exercise our bodies and, importantly, our minds. It has been proven that fear lowers one’s immunity system, so the more scared you are, the higher chances of getting sick (with any virus) you have. Let’s not make this worse than it needs to be! Paranoia, hatred, and fear is the real virus.
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