As of Thursday morning, the New York Times reported that there are 12 cases of the coronavirus in the United States, including six cases in California and two in Chicago. The announcement came after the first confirmed U.S. case arose in Washington State over two weeks ago. While the illness has barely made its way to the U.S., the lack of understanding surrounding the Wuhan coronavirus’s contagion and cure has placed the issue at the forefront of American consciousness. This attention, compounded with a 24-hour news cycle, has captured the West’s attention for days on end. While media coverage can often over-dramatize public health crises like this one, The Michigan Daily Editorial Board believes this attention remains especially imperative given China’s opaque nature in discussing the thousands of cases within their country.
A report from the Washington Post recently said the Chinese government has quarantined over 35 million people. The same article referenced several public health experts worried that these drastic measures will serve to undercut the trust between the Chinese population and its public health officials, a move that could prevent those infected from receiving the correct education and treatment. While the American media may be overreacting to the few confirmed cases within U.S. borders, their over-coverage may prove important in accumulating the most accurate information possible if the Chinese government continues to operate with a lack of transparency.
While accurate coverage is important, University of Michigan students and the Ann Arbor community alike should keep in mind the warnings of public health officials to avoid any apocalyptic predictions and hysteria, as “Americans should not worry for their own safety.” In typical fashion, social media has had a significant response, with a plethora of memes about the virus populating Facebook and Twitter feeds. While humor can be a coping mechanism, this memetic social media reaction could contribute to misinformation and undue panic. More locally, the University has responded to the outbreak in an official capacity, issuing a travel restriction on the entire country of China and cautioning U-M affiliates to avoid all non-essential travel to the area. While these diligent responses are meant to protect the U-M community, it is important to maintain the line between “urging vigilance without inciting panic.” As a diverse and global institution, we must avoid any rhetoric or practices that forcefully divide Asian-American students or any other members of the U-M community. While the disease may not seem like an immediate threat to the U.S., we should keep in mind the many real lives being impacted by the outbreak, making an effort to be attentive to our community rather than alienating.
This certainly is not the first time we have seen such widespread hysteria over a novel disease. In 2003, Severe Acute Respiratory System (SARS), another member of the coronavirus family, caused similar panic when 29 of the 8,098 reported cases occurred in the U.S. — yet none of these patients died. Similarly, panics over Bird flu, Ebola virus and Zika virus have all garnered significant media coverage and societal alarm. In each instance, reported cases in the U.S. composed a small minority of worldwide infections and deaths. The coverage of Wuhan coronavirus seems to be following this trend. It seems panic is often generated over the most new and noteworthy diseases — not necessarily the most dangerous ones.
On the other hand, the common flu kills an average of 35,000 people each year, hospitalizing about 200,000. In 2018, the flu took its highest toll in 40 years, causing 80,000 American deaths. These numbers serve as a reminder that we should always be diligent about protecting our health against both newsworthy and seemingly mundane illnesses. The defenses are relatively simple: disinfect porous surfaces, avoid touching your face and wash your hands frequently. Additionally, everyone who is able should be proactive in receiving the flu vaccine every year. U-M offers flu shots at walk-in clinics for students, faculty and staff throughout the fall and early winter, or through appointment at UHS.
Finally, it’s important to keep in mind that the greatest threats to human health in America are much less newsworthy than the Wuhan coronavirus or other infectious diseases. Chronic illnesses have a significant impact in the U.S., with heart disease and cancer being the leading causes of death by a significant margin. Unfortunately, the defenses to these health issues aren’t as simple as good hygiene. A more structural reform will be necessary to tackle these causes of death, one involving health policy, nutrition, insurance markets and more. Every time a hot-button disease makes headlines, it’s important to keep in mind the less glamorous reality of health in the U.S., and what we should be doing to improve it.
Regardless of novelty, everyone should always take public health seriously. Good hygiene, proper hand-washing and updated flu shots may feel like small acts on the individual level, but when taken in context of a larger population, these simple habits are exceptionally powerful in keeping everyone healthy — especially those with pre-existing conditions that place them at higher risk for health complications due to illness. We as the Michigan Daily Editorial Board urge the U-M community to stay informed for updates on the coronavirus and use the illness as an opportunity to check in with our regular public health habits.