Farhad Manjoo: Beware the pandemic panic

(Chinatopix via AP) In this Jan. 27, 2020 photo, community health workers check the temperature of a person who recently returned from Hubei Province, center of a virus outbreak, in Hangzhou in eastern China's Zhejiang Province. As China institutes the largest quarantine in human history, locking down more than 50 million people in the center of the country, those who have recently been to Wuhan are being tracked, monitored, turned away from hotels and shoved into isolation at their homes and in makeshift quarantine facilities.

Coronavirus is starting to freak me out — not the illness itself but the amped-up, ill-considered way our frightened world might respond to it.

Yes, the novel virus appears to be spreading quickly at the outbreak’s epicenter in the Chinese province of Hubei, but after a late start the Chinese government is now imposing unprecedented measures to contain it. As the World Health Organization declared last week, it remains too early to call the outbreak a global public health emergency.

So far, the Wuhan coronavirus is not much more frightening than the outbreaks of other recent coronaviruses like SARS in 2003 or MERS in 2012, each of which killed fewer than a thousand people around the world. The new virus’s death toll has just exceeded 130; for context, according to the CDC, about 15 million Americans have been sickened by the seasonal flu so far in the 2019-2020 flu season, and 8,200 have died from it. (The flu kills between 300,000 and 650,000 people around the world annually.)

What worries me more than the new disease is that fear of a vague and terrifying new illness might spiral into panic and that it might be used to justify unnecessarily severe limits on movement and on civil liberties, especially of racial and religious minorities around the world.

I also worry that the online world may give rise to dangerous skepticism and that in the event of an actual pandemic a large number of people may delay treatment or refuse vaccines because they don’t believe the science or are suspicious of the government.

“I predict that the next major outbreak — whether of a highly fatal strain of influenza or something else — will not be due to a lack of preventive technologies,” warned Heidi Larson, the director of the Vaccine Confidence Project, in a 2018 article in the journal Nature. “Instead, emotional contagion, digitally enabled, could erode trust in vaccines so much as to render them moot.” Social media, she added, “should be recognized as a global public-health threat.”

Tech giants have been racing to tamp down conspiracy theories and hoaxes about the Wuhan virus, but I worry that their efforts won’t be very successful, because society seems to have no good answer to the kind of emotional contagion Larson describes. It’s not just that many people get their news from a medium given to rumor, exaggeration and wild misinformation, especially on issues about health or science — see the persistence of anti-vaxers or climate-change deniers. There is also a growing partisan divide over how Americans interpret scientific expertise and health policy, leaving decisions about public health vulnerable to the kind of partisan squabbling you hear on cable news every night.

I also worry about the hair-trigger state of geopolitics. From Donald Trump to Xi Jinping to Boris Johnson, strongmen with authoritarian tendencies run many of the world’s most powerful governments. It is worth remembering that disease, or the fear of disease, can bring out the worst in humanity — pandemics often feed scapegoating (Jews were widely blamed for the Black Death), creating a fertile field for demagogues. When you put all these factors together, you’ve got a dangerous recipe for global repression.

Already, China’s response appears to be driven by political considerations more than epidemiological ones. The government has imposed a travel lockdown on more than 35 million people, which experts say is a quarantine of unprecedented size and scale, yet it may not even turn out to be very effective. Experts say that quarantines work best during the earliest stages of an outbreak but that they can also backfire, causing medical shortages, corroding trust in health officials and pushing some people to look to evade care to escape any restriction on their rights. China took weeks to mount a full-scale response to the virus. According to Wuhan’s mayor, 5 million people left the city before restrictions were imposed, suggesting the country is effectively locking the barn door after the horse has run off.

“They’re doing it because people who are in political leadership always think that if you do something dramatic and visible that you’ll gain popular support,” Lawrence Gostin, a professor of global health law at Georgetown University, told The Washington Post. “They couldn’t have any sound public health advice.”

We should keep this sense of caution in mind in case American politicians begin pushing for travel bans, overbroad quarantines or other measures that might not be supported by the science.

You might wonder what the great harm is — if the government needs to temporarily limit people’s movements or prevent some people from entering the country, shouldn’t it take those measures in the face of dangerous illness? Perhaps, but given the checkered history of quarantines — throughout history, they have been used to persecute the marginalized — lawmakers and the media should rigorously examine the bases for any such restrictions. We should especially make sure any restrictions imposed are indeed temporary and adhere to the science — something we don’t always do. Consider that 30 years after the AIDS outbreak, men who have sex with men are still restricted from donating blood in the United States, long after the scientific basis for such a ban has passed.

So far, President Donald Trump has offered a measured response to the virus. “We have it totally under control,” he said this week. But online, misinformation about the scale of the virus is already trending. (It is not, as you might have read on Twitter, “thermonuclear pandemic level bad.”) So are racist memes blaming Chinese people and Chinese culture for the virus.

I fear that the conditions are ripe for a situation similar to what occurred in the summer of 2014, when an outbreak of Ebola overran West Africa. After the Obama administration scrambled to bring home two American health workers who had become infected with the disease in Liberia, Trump went on a monthslong Twitter tirade about Ebola.

The future president favored extreme isolationism, seeing no benefit to American help in Africa. “People that go to far away places to help out are great-but must suffer the consequences!” he wrote — ultimately sparking a growing partisan movement against the government’s response to the virus.

Today, Trump runs an administration that is hemorrhaging scientific expertise, and his political agenda is rife with efforts to target immigrants, minorities and the poor. In 2016, a terrorist attack prompted Trump to propose banning Muslims from the country; when he won the White House, he instituted a version of that ban.

I fear that panic about a foreign virus offers society another chance to target marginalized people. So let’s keep our fear in check; panic will hurt us far more than it’ll help.

Farhad Manjoo

Farhad Manjoo is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.