Panic over coronavirus is ‘very human,’ but experts say the risk is low

Click to play video: 'Do Canadians need to worry about coronavirus?'
Do Canadians need to worry about coronavirus?
ABOVE: Do Canadians need to worry about coronavirus? – Jan 27, 2020

On Monday, Ontario health officials announced the province’s second “presumptive” case of the new coronavirus, which also marks the second case in Canada.

The female patient has been in “self-isolation” since arriving in Toronto from Wuhan, China last week and the risk to Ontarians and the rest of the country remains “low,” according to a statement from public health officials.

The message was the same after Canada’s first presumptive case of the coronavirus was confirmed on Jan. 25 — Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer, said person-to-person transmission had been reported in close contact only.

However, fear and misinformation continue to spread. In fact, some B.C. pharmacies told Global News that they sold out of surgical face masks after the first “presumptive” case was announced.

This reaction is very “human,” said Steven Hoffman, director of the Global Strategy Lab, but it’s neither helpful nor proportionate to the current risk level.

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“Whenever there’s a situation where we don’t have the full information and … people are dying, there’s going to be fear,” he said.

Although the respiratory illness has sickened at least 2,000 people and killed dozens around the world, Pierre Talbot maintains that the individual risk for Canadians remains quite low.

“The virus is not [doesn’t spread] as quickly as influenza — coronaviruses don’t spread very quickly in general,” said Talbot, director of the neuroimmunovirology laboratory at the National Institute of Scientific Research.

“And in this case, we have small cases, but it will be constrained by a quarantine.”

Click to play video: 'Coronavirus outbreak: Second ‘presumptive’ case of virus reported in Toronto'
Coronavirus outbreak: Second ‘presumptive’ case of virus reported in Toronto

The coronavirus spreads the same way as influenza, “by coughing and sneezing from one person to the other,” said Talbot. Transmission of the virus requires being in very close in contact — less than two metres — with an infected individual.

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The public reaction to the coronavirus is “far from” the relative risk, Talbot said.

“I think the epidemic will die out in the next few weeks.”

Below, experts explain the possible factors contributing to widespread fear of the coronavirus in Canada.

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Humans aren’t good at ‘perceiving risk’

The threat of the coronavirus could seem more ominous than it is because it’s not isolated to one location or one group of people.

“There is the sense that it could infect anyone and, indeed, it could,” Hoffman said.

He sees a similar phenomenon with terrorism, which scares people to a similar degree: “there’s public perception that it can happen anywhere, to anyone, without notice.”

The important thing is for individuals, public health officials and the media to always put news and information about the coronavirus into the appropriate context.

“For example, we have more than 2,000 cases … but every year, the seasonal flu kills up to half a million people [around the world], and yet, how many people don’t even bother to get the flu shot?” he said.
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Placing these situations in perspective is “so important” for quelling fear, said Hoffman.

Devon Greyson, assistant professor of communications at the University of Massachusetts, said the same panic occurred during the H1N1 influenza pandemic.

“Unknown risks are difficult to weigh, and often feel scarier to people than actual known risks. We are seeing this now when people panic about the novel coronavirus but haven’t gotten the flu shot.”

“In Canada we usually see about 3,500 flu deaths each year, but influenza seems familiar to people so it does not feel as scary as a new virus.”

Fear-mongering and misinformation

Sensationalist headlines and lack of regulation online could also be contributing to an inflated sense of fear.

“There are certain media outlets that I’ve seen that have put crazy headlines designed to attract attention and cause harm,” said Hoffman. “There are also several other news outlets which are actually being really responsible and really helpful.”

Public awareness is needed in these circumstances, Hoffman said, but balance and responsible reporting are key.

Click to play video: 'Canadian coronavirus patient had symptoms on plane'
Canadian coronavirus patient had symptoms on plane
“The fact that the person who was affected [in Canada] knew about the coronavirus and knew what to do if [they] developed symptoms … that’s because of measures implemented by the government at airports, as well as the media,” he said.
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Canadian public health officials are have expressed concern about the spread of misinformation, especially online.

Officials told The Canadian Press they were keeping an eye on social media because misinformation has become a threat to illness prevention.

“In health care in general right now, we are struggling a little bit to combat misinformation about health care from social media and from all fronts and I don’t suspect this will be any different,” said Dr. Sohail Gandhi, president of the Ontario Medical Association to the Canadian Press.

“We have a media staff that are actively monitoring different emerging trends … If they feel there is too much misinformation particularly on one matter, we will speak out against that.”

Greyson said both misinformation and disinformation are a concern.

“We are already seeing fearful misinformation, including inaccurate conspiracy theories, spreading on social media. Some of this is deliberate disinformation on behalf of people who hope to make a profit off of this outbreak (such as those peddling unproven dietary supplements), but most of the volume is scared individuals sharing misinformation that can erode trust in public health, ultimately raising risks for spread of an outbreak instead of reducing risk,” Greyson said.

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Greyson recommends Canadians instead rely on “scientific and trustworthy” sources of information, like the World Health Organization, the Public Health Agency of Canada, or the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Canada’s public health reaction

All things considered, Hoffman said the response by Canadian public health officials has been impressive.

“I make a living on criticizing government responses to public health issues, and in this case, there’s not very much to find fault in what they’re doing,” he said.

“They’ve developed protocols and they’re following those protocols to a tee. That’s exactly what you want to see.”

Click to play video: 'First point of contact for those concerned about infection should be Ontario Health: Sunnybrook'
First point of contact for those concerned about infection should be Ontario Health: Sunnybrook

However, Hoffman hopes that in the future, the government will take steps to create protocols for slowing the spread of misinformation on social media.

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“To the extent that part of public health’s job is to manage the fear of outbreaks, then we need to develop even better approaches in light of the social media age,” he said.

“We probably need a new playbook to deal with the kind of pandemic of fear that we’re seeing [online].”

— With files from the Canadian Press

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