Wuhan novel coronavirus has finally hit our shores, a month after it was reported in China. On 25th January 2020, the Health Minister, Datuk Seri Dr Dzulkefly Ahmad has confirmed three positive cases with another one announced shortly after, which brings the total of infected patients in this country to four with all those infected being Chinese citizens. Following the announcements, the Ministry of Health (MOH) continues to strengthen its outbreak responses and guidelines, while setting the tone for public concern without unduly panic through open communication channels.
Deputy Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail who is also the chairman of the National Disaster Management Agency (NADMA), chaired a high-level inter-sectoral novel coronavirus coordination meeting in Putrajaya a day after the announcements were made, citing that the situation is under control and there is no reason for the public to panic. This is in accordance to WHO’s statement on the meeting of the International Health (2005) Emergency Committee regarding the outbreak of novel coronavirus (2019-nCov) – it is yet a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC).
Despite all efforts to negate it, the sense of panic among the public about this issue continues to grow. With the growing sense of panic, comes the growing sense to control it and pretty soon there’ll be as many anti-panic articles as those that panic about it. Therefore, it is imperative that we take a step back and try to understand why there is panic in the first place and what we can do to overcome it before the situation escalates further. It may prove to be unproductive to simply instruct everyone not to panic without looking at what fuels it.
Local and international media are in a frenzy. As of today, there are over 98 million articles about Wuhan novel coronavirus available online. Most are current updates about the situation, but many are also speculations about it. It seems that everyone is trying to make the most out of this situation. Although this very simple act, which has amassed a substantial collective knowledge about the novel coronavirus in a short time span, is an important source of information for the public, it has undeniably generated panic in societies all over the world. It is crucial that media continue to report the situation in a responsible manner, sticking to the facts and staying away from its sensational aspects.
Recency bias has generated panic by reminding everyone of the more recent and still ongoing Middle East Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV), where 35% of reportedly infected patients have died since it was detected in 2012; the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) epidemic in 2003 with nearly 800 deaths; and H1N1 flu pandemic in 2009 with a total of 19,000 deaths. Overcoming this effect by looking at the context of outbreaks over the last century would be helpful as it enables public to realise that the more recent outbreaks are not causing as many deaths as those that occurred at the beginning of the century. We have to look at the bigger picture to understand the actual gravity of the current outbreak.
Lack of transparency
Panic ensued all over the world last week as Beijing reported a surge in the number of infected individuals from 41 to more than 300. The surge raises concerns regarding Beijing’s transparency about the Wuhan novel coronavirus outbreak, with many reminded of the similar situation back in 2003 when information about the deadly SARS epidemic was not shared fast enough due to multiple bureaucratic setbacks. It is vital that governments and health authorities (not just Beijing) remain transparent by disseminating useful and timely information while also being clear about what we know and what we don’t. Governments must rebuild public trust during this high-stake crisis situation to overcome panic.
The escalating number of fake news about the outbreak circulated by irresponsible citizens is only making the situation a lot worse than it already is, increasing the sense of panic locally and abroad. People are forwarding unverified instant messages without authoritative links and posting them on social media unchecked, further brewing panic among societies and social groups. Each individual must stop this careless act, instead allow health authorities and relevant government bodies both locally and internationally to provide the public with news update without trying to distract from it. Distracting the public from accurate information in outbreak situation such as this will prove to be costly, if not deadly.