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B.C. health officials try to dispel COVID-19 misinformation among Chinese-Canadian community

Click to play video 'Richmond mall battles COVID-19 misinformation with facts' Richmond mall battles COVID-19 misinformation with facts
Aberdeen Centre tries to halt the significant drop-off in business due to the global COVID-19 outbreak by holding an information session on Saturday. Julia Foy reports. – Feb 22, 2020

Health workers and officials in B.C. are working overtime to dispel misinformation being spread about COVID-19, particularly within the Chinese-Canadian community.

On Saturday, doctors gathered at the Aberdeen Centre shopping mall in Richmond to answer questions and bust some of the key myths about the new coronavirus, which has infected six people in the province.

Dr. Joseph Ip, one of the speakers who specializes in emergency medicine at Royal Columbian Hospital, says he and the other doctors hoped to clarify key aspects of how the virus is spread.

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“Some people will say it’s airborne, some people will say it’s just droplets,” he said.

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“It’s very important that we emphasize that this is a disease that is mainly spread by doplets. At this point there’s no indication that this is airborne.”

READ MORE: 6th case of COVID-19 reported in B.C., contracted by woman visiting Iran

But Ip says it’s also important to remind people how to protect themselves, including everyday handwashing and other steps that can reduce transmission.

“Just by exercising personal hygiene, it will go a long way towards protecting us from infection,” he said.

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Ip says many rumours about the cause, spread and overall nature of COVID-19 have been propagating on social media, making Saturday’s event important for members of the health community to get the facts out there.

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The prevalence of social media rumours in the Chinese community, specifically, is why the BC Centre for Disease Control began releasing a series of videos Friday featuring people stating facts about the disease in both Mandarin and Cantonese.

“We learned that inaccurate and anecdotal information was being shared through the WeChat community, which is popular with Chinese speaking audiences,” Provincial Health Services Authority said in a statement.

“Our hope is that by also creating videos in Mandarin and Cantonese, as well as additional print resources in multiple languages, we can provide this community with another source of accessible, accurate information and [offer] reassurance about our provincial COVID-19 readiness efforts.”

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The misinformation has led to some serious impacts on businesses in Richmond, which boasts one of Metro Vancouver’s largest Chinese-Canadian communities.

That includes Aberdeen Centre itself, where the owners of one store had to recently lay off one of its salespeople.

“Since the outbreak, people just aren’t coming out like they used to,” said Walter Yeung, who is now helping out his parents at their Estherbella store.

“It’s really hurting small businesses like us.”

READ MORE: Vancouver’s Chinese-Canadian businesses report up to 70% business drop amid virus fears

Joey Kwan, spokesperson for Aberdeen Centre and the organizer of Saturday’s event, said the impacts are being felt throughout the mall.

“I have to be honest, we’ve seen a significant difference in traffic” since the outbreak began, she said. “But we have to give more positive information to get the word out.

“People tend to have fear and have anxiety when something is new and unknown … it’s very understandable that we want to protect ourselves and our family. So I hope this talk can help.”

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It’s that desire to assure people that made Dr. Meena Dawar with Vancouver Coastal Health want to attend and speak at the event, and to reassure the public that health authorities are united in the fight against the coronavirus.

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“We’ve been working very well together for some time,” she said. “Provincially and nationally, we’re all co-ordinated in our response, which is really important when dealing with a new virus.”

She also repeated that most people who fall ill with COVID-19 only develop mild respiratory symptoms, and that it’s relatively rare for the illness to get worse.

READ MORE: B.C.’s first confirmed COVID-19 patient has fully recovered, say health officials

Six people have now fallen ill with the virus in B.C., five of whom had travelled to China and returned to the province. The first of those cases has since recovered.

The most recent case, announced Thursday, was a woman in her 30s who visited Iran, a country that is now seeing an outbreak of the virus with dozens of cases.

Health officials continue to stress that the risk to British Columbians is low.

— With files from Julia Foy