Kate De Groote: The first pandemic of the internet age

Passengers from Wuhan stand in lines designating where they will quarantine in Beijing, China, on Wednesday, April 15, 2020. Wuhan, the city at the center of the global coronavirus epidemic, lifted a 76-day lockdown and allowed people to leave for destinations across China. (AP Photo/Sam McNeil)

I stepped off the plane at the Beijing Capital Airport on Jan. 23, and was surprised when the immigration officer asked me where my mask was. When I saw I was quite literally the only one around me not wearing a surgical mask, I realized that the articles I had read about an unknown disease in Wuhan were out of date.

Over the next two weeks, as I prepared to restart classes at Beijing Language and Culture University, where I was studying Chinese as part of a gap year, the neighborhood I had called home for five months became a ghost town. Then all Chinese New Year celebrations were cancelled. My host family recalled memories of the SARS epidemic in 2003 when they didn’t go to school or work for more than four months.

At first, the measures that the Chinese government was taking didn’t make sense to me. They quarantined millions of people and postponed the start of the next school semester. There were only a few thousand people infected, and the virus was far less deadly than SARS, I thought.

But over the next month, China’s measures began to make sense and showed the massive gap between how China and the U.S. responded. Even though China has been criticized for not taking action as quickly as it should have and even delaying reporting its existence, once it began responding, it did so decisively, resulting in the outbreak currently slowing to near an end. Faced with a lack of sufficient hospital facilities, for example, they built new hospitals in record time.

Luckily, the U.S. had plenty of advance notice that the virus was coming. But much of that time has been squandered. How long has the federal government waited to take massive action to supply masks, protective equipment and especially enough test kits to keep the U.S. epidemic under control? There has been an inability on both sides of the political spectrum to work together to figure out how to not only contain the virus, but also how to manage all of the economic consequences. Waiting to adequately respond until there were already more than 30 dead is a failure by the government to protect its citizens.

The sharp contrast in these two responses shows the lack of preparation the U.S. had in case of a pandemic. A virus isn’t something that can be simply solved when it happens.

In addition, many reactions by universities, companies and conferences haven’t been fully thought out and often have led to far more panic than this pandemic warrants. On March 10, Harvard University told all students that they had five days to move out of their dorms and that classes were to move online. This prompted many questions from students, such as, “What if I don’t have the money to fly home,” and questions from Italian, South Korean, Chinese, etc., students, as going home wasn’t safer than staying in Boston.

Many similar actions taken by various groups have also lacked proper vision — creating panic and fear while not attempting to mitigate the impact on the livelihood of small businesses and employees.

When I was in China during the outbreak, even though the streets turned empty, there was hardly any panic. When looking on social media there were messages of support for those in Wuhan and instructions of how to keep safe, in addition to constant news updates with numbers of cases and deaths.

My host family trusted the government and its response. The internet in China censors out critical comments, but still some underlying frustration and anger broke through — mostly from Wuhan citizens angry with their local government’s initial response. Outside of Wuhan, most people expressed faith in the central government.

Contrast this with the U.S. Our internet gives us access to all sides and allows access to many helpful sources. Unfortunately, too many have taken our freedom to instill not just natural skepticism, but a profound distrust of the government and the major news channels. Instagram and TikTok users are leveraging fear and false statistics to boost their number of followers. Social media doesn’t reward facts or reason, but controversy, anger and outrage. Looking through comments on popular posts, it becomes clear that the fear that there is a cover-up or that the virus has killed millions is a reality for many people.

While scrolling through Twitter, I saw hundreds of tweets with different advice on how to react to the virus and whether or not everyone is going to die. This profound amount of fear mongering is creating a virus of itself, and it’s one to rival COVID-19’s speed of transmission. Part of this all goes back to distrust in government and what they say, and by extension, what a lot of the mainstream media says as well.

This is the first true test of a pandemic in the social media age, and it has come with a lot of paranoia, scare tactics, and lying, but also hope. It shows that we have a long way to go in terms of gauging when to panic and also in response to a disease such as this. A lot more preparation needs to be done for when the next pandemic does come. And it will.

As I have seen the response in both China and the U.S., I have come to realize how often Americans love to have a scapegoat — someone they can fear. In some cases people fear conspiracies or inflated statistics. In many cases, people express that fear towards anyone who looks even remotely Asian. Not only is this just ignorant, but it also is dividing us in a crisis, which is when we need to be the most unified. Social media is a reflection of how much trust the government and media have lost. Whether that trust may be regained depends upon how they respond to this pandemic and how we prepare for the next one. Our lives depend on it.

Kate De Groote

Kate De Groote, West Valley City, is a 2019 graduate of Skyline High School, a delegate to the International Congress of Youth Voices and is to attend Harvard University in the fall.