In the face of global panic, the WHO wants to battle misinformation. But that won't be enoughby Robert Peckham / March 4, 2020 / Leave a comment
In Italy there’s a supermarket punch-up as shoppers fight over the last packet of pasta. In Hong Kong, two men are arrested for a “toilet paper heist” (yes, really), stealing 600 rolls of toilet paper that were left outside a supermarket. While the World Health Organisation deliberates whether or not the Covid-19 epidemic warrants the status pandemic, there’s no doubting that panic has gone global. From Seoul to Jakarta, Singapore to Milan, people are spooked.
This kind of consumerist panic—the stripped-shelf, stockpiling variety—has a familiar repertoire: long queues, flared tempers, occasional stampedes, and sporadic acts of violence with twists of dark humor, like the loo roll heist. All of this is apparently fuelled by the spectre of quarantine and imminent lockdown. Anonymous video-clips—real or staged, it’s hard to tell—from the viral frontline in Wuhan, China, don’t help. Viewed through a Twitter feed, it could be the zombie pandemic in World War Z, though that begins in Chongqing. If apocalypse can happen there, why not here?
Aside from the supermarket run on food, face masks and sanitisers, there’s another species of discriminatory panic, which the sociologist Stanley Cohen calls “moral panic,” in which the spread of disease is blamed on others. In a panic situation, Cohen writes, “a condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests.” In China, these “folk devils” are people from the province of Hubei, the epicenter of the Covid-19 outbreak, who are now shunned by others in the country as potential carriers. Elsewhere, individuals of Chinese descent have reportedly been targeted. Assumptions about race and culture play into this toxic mix. Disease is viewed as the consequence of deviant behaviours, practices and predilections. Videos of Chinese diners sitting down with a hearty appetite to some exotic repast reinforce prejudicial convictions that every disease has its wicked superspreader. Covid-19 is no exception.
And finally, there’s market panic. Covid-19 has sent stock markets tumbling. Last week the Dow Jones suffered its biggest single-day slump on record. The prospect of a dramatic slowdown in Chinese manufacturing and the knock-on effect on global supply chains is stoking fears of total meltdown,…