The news about the spread of a new virus out of the city of Wuhan in China is scary. The virus is a novel type of coronavirus — provisionally called 2019-nCoV — that leads to an upper respiratory disease similar to influenza or pneumonia. According to the World Health Organization, more than 6,000 people have been confirmed to have contracted coronavirus — almost all in China — and 132 people have died.
Since the virus is new, there are still many unknowns. But according to city and state health officials, while the situation in China is being closely monitored, there is no reason for people in the Philadelphia region to be overly concerned. Washing hands, covering coughs, staying at home when experiencing cold and flu-like symptoms, and contacting a physician if symptoms follow recent travel to China are all measures of protection.
All of these measures are also the way to prevent the spread of the flu — a virus that so far this season has reportedly led to 445 hospitalizations and six deaths in Philadelphia.
A previous viral outbreak from China showed the ugly consequences of panic created by epidemics. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in the six months of the SARS outbreak in 2003, it infected roughly 8,000 people and killed 770.
In the United States, only eight people got SARS and all survived; none were from Philadelphia.
But the panic of SARS led to a toll that does not come with influenza: racism and exclusion.
In April 2003, amidst the global SARS outbreak, the Daily News and The Inquirer reported that businesses in Philadelphia’s Chinatown saw sales dip by 40% to 60%, even though no case in North America was linked to any Chinatown. According to reporting at the time, one reason for SARS’s impact on businesses in Chinatown was internet hoaxes and rumors that linked the disease to restaurants and other Chinese-owned businesses.
The exclusion of people only because they are Chinese has already begun worldwide. In Seoul, South Korea’s capital, a restaurant put up a sign in Chinese reading, “No Chinese allowed.” A Chinese student in the U.K. reported being avoided in the halls of their university out of fear of infection. In a Canadian town with a large Chinese population, thousands of parents circulated a petition demanding that kids whose family members visited China be “self-quarantined.”
None of these measures have any basis in public health — only in panic and in racism.
A possible case of coronavirus led Philadelphia’s Penn Charter School to end a Chinese exchange program — testing showed that the student did not have the virus and the 18 Chinese high schoolers flew back home.