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B.C. man who unknowingly became face of coronavirus speaks out against misinformation

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A man from British Columbia is speaking out after an image of him wearing a surgical mask was posted online, falsely accusing him of spreading the novel coronavirus disease, officially known as COVID-19.

Jerry Guo, a Volkswagen salesperson living in Richmond, B.C., is of Chinese descent. Guo told Global News in an interview that he was dropping his girlfriend off at the Vancouver International Airport when the two of them were photographed wearing surgical masks.

The photo was later uploaded by an aggregate news website. The caption advised people to beware of Chinese travellers wearing masks because masks aren’t guaranteed to protect from COVID-19.

READ MORE: Ministers, mayor push back against coronavirus stigma in Toronto’s Chinatown neighbourhood

Initially, Guo said he took it lightly until one of his friends called him “famous” when his photo appeared on Richmond News.

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“Honestly, at first, I was a little bit proud of myself,” Guo said. “I’ve never been on news before. So, you know, I was excited at that time.”

Then, he became concerned it would affect his job.

“They were using my picture as a cover of the news, and the news was not related to me; it’s related to the coronavirus case so it creates a misunderstanding for people,” he said.

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Angry, Guo said he called his lawyer, who told him the best she could do was write a letter to the original poster and hope they take it down. Feeling like there was “no point” in doing that, he eventually had all of his friends report the photo and article in order to get it removed.

Guo’s case is not unique. As the virus spreads so, too, have racist and xenophobic comments targeting people of Chinese and Asian descent across the globe.

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But Dr. Joseph Wong, a family physician who has been practising for the last 40 years in Toronto, said the fear and racism associated with COVID-19 is “unfounded.”

“The fear is not based on fact or evidence,” Wong said.

READ MORE: As coronavirus dominates headlines, xenophobic and insensitive social media posts go viral

He said all viruses behave and spread in relatively similar ways regardless of race, mutating year after year, often determined by the place and time they come into contact with human beings rather than by the people themselves.

“Race has nothing to do with the viruses,” said Wong. “Unfortunately, this time around, it is in China, and China is such a populated country so it’s spread very, very fast.”

Geoffrey Fong, a professor of psychology, public health and health systems at the University of Waterloo, expressed concerns that misinformation could be spreading faster than the virus itself.

“There are two viral outbreaks that are going on. One of them is the pathogen of coronavirus, and the other one connected to that is the information that’s being spread virally through the channels of social media,” he said.

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Fong said social media platforms are increasingly becoming a main source of news but are not subject to a rigorous vetting process like traditional newspapers or network television stations. He said most are “not generally capable” of weeding out the facts from fiction. The result, according to Fong, is a “critical” example of the potential hazards of having an uncensored social media.

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“The coronavirus really come with it a set of ingredients that make for a boiling pot of potential misinformation and panic,” he said.

“Right now, we live in an era where the ways in which people get information about the world is increasingly channelled through sources that claim to be completely neutral… it’s very important for us to recognize that people who have some profit motive or want to disseminate and to spread untrue theories like conspiracy theories and untrue stories about the world can do so.”

Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses that have already been around for hundreds — if not thousands — of years, some causing illness in people and others circulating among animals, including camels, cats and bats. Wong emphasized that Chinese people did not invent COVID-19, describing it as a disease caused by this new strain of coronavirus, which has not previously been identified in humans.

READ MORE: Chinese Canadians warn public against spreading fear, racism over coronavirus

According to the Canadian government, many of the initial cases in the COVID-19 outbreak have been linked to the Huanan Seafood Market in Wuhan, China. The market has been closed since Jan. 1 for cleaning and disinfection, but the actual source of the virus is still unknown.

Canadian officials said the public health risk associated with the disease is low for Canada and Canadian travellers, but many Canadians are still wearing surgical masks outdoors.

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Colin Furness, an epidemiologist and assistant professor at the University of Toronto, said the biggest misinformation he’s noticed is about how the disease is spread. COVID-19 has been broadcasted as a highly infectious disease, but Furness said it’s a little harder to catch than most people think.

“The reality is that this is a respiratory virus that’s spread by sneezing and coughing, which has a range of about six feet, and a half-life of a sneeze is about 10 seconds. So after about a minute, that’s all precipitated down,” he said. “We have people wandering around with surgical procedure masks, which don’t provide that kind of protection. They don’t actually make a lot of sense.”

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The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also don’t recommend wearing surgical masks to protect against COVID-19. Masks can protect against droplet infections produced through sneezing and coughing but won’t protect a person’s eyes or open wounds, the CDC said on its website.

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Instead, the CDC advocates for handwashing, which plays a more important role in transmitting the virus that causes COVID-19.

Health officials in Hubei province said 242 people died from the flu-like illness on Wednesday, the fastest rise in the daily count since the pathogen was identified in December. This brings the total number of COVID-19 deaths in the province to 1,310. The previous record rise in the death toll was 103 on Monday.

On Thursday, health official reported 14,840 new cases in Hubei alone.

READ MORE: COVID-19 — China reports over 14,800 new cases, 242 deaths in highest single-day jump

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization, voiced his concerns over the stigmatization at a press conference on Wednesday.

“Outbreaks can bring out the best and worst in people,” he said. “Stigmatizing individuals or entire nations does nothing but harm the response.

“The stigma directs our attentions and turns people against each other. I will say it again: this is a time for solidarity, not stigma.”

During the press conference, Tedros reiterated his praise for China in their handling of the COVID-19 outbreak, telling reporters that China “took action massively at the epicentre” of the outbreak that helped prevent the spread worldwide.

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— With files from Global News’ Jeff Semple, Global News’ Jasmine Pazzano and Reuters