As the days pass by and we all adapt to our newfound reality, the WHO has started holding almost daily press conferences in which director-general Tedros Adhanom pleads with the world’s leaders to take swift action. Meanwhile, in Europe the continent has quickly become an almost prison-like state; nearly all travel is banned in Italy, and gatherings of more than two people is a no-no in Germany. Stateside, President Trump is unbelievably already talking about sending Americans back to work.
Governmental responses, policies, and recommendations regarding COVID-19 are a significant piece of the puzzle when it comes to beating this global challenge, but the power to make a difference very much lies in each one of our hands. For all of the negativity and setbacks that COVID-19 has already caused, and there is a whole lot to choose from, you and I are not helpless. Each person is capable of making a difference by being responsible, staying away from other people, sticking to the facts, and perhaps most importantly, not falling for the lies and misinformation that are being spread to induce fear and hysteria.
Fake news, alternative facts, misinformation — whatever you want to call it, has become a simple fact of life over the past five years or so, and the COVID-19 situation is no different. From supposed miracle cures to reports of martial law, there’s a multitude of falsehoods being shared online by the hour. But, are people actually falling for this stuff?
A recent Stanford survey of 2,986 Americans and 2,988 UK residents is providing some insight into people’s perceptions and knowledge of the coronavirus, and some of the statistics are quite troubling. Generally, respondents appeared to have a decent understanding of how to prevent contracting the virus and typical symptoms, but many also reported believing conspiracy theories and falsehoods that have been spread online.
As if that wasn’t disturbing enough, far too many participants admitted to prejudice against Asian Americans and Asians in general because of COVID-19.
“A substantial proportion of participants also expressed an intent to discriminate against individuals of East Asian ethnicity for fear of acquiring COVID-19,” the research abstract reads.
Each person was asked 22 questions about the novel coronavirus, ranging from general knowledge on the virus to more specific questions on conspiracy theories and perceptions of Asians. The research was conducted by Pascal Geldsetzer MD PhD MPH of Harvard University and Stanford University between February 23rd and March 2nd, and released on March 20th. All of the participants were carefully chosen to equally represent different age groups, genders, and ethnicities.
Let’s take a look at some specific questions and responses. One of the most prevalent conspiracy theories regarding COVID-19 is that the virus was created in a lab by a government or terrorist organization to be used as a bioweapon. It’s an outlandish theory, but 23.9% of US respondents said that it is slightly, moderately, or extremely likely to be true, and 18.4% of UK participants said the same.
When respondents were asked if it would be “prudent” to avoid Chinese restaurants for the foreseeable future to avoid contracting the coronavirus, 25.6% of American participants responded yes, and 29.6% of UK respondents agreed as well.
Another question told participants to imagine themselves as an Uber driver and then asked if they would actively avoid picking up Asian passengers to avoid getting the coronavirus. In all, 29.7% of US participants and 40.8% of UK residents answered they would avoid Asian customers “sometimes, often, or always.”
Additionally, 29% of Americans said they would be afraid to receive a package from China and 24.4% of UK citizens shared the same sentiment.
The survey’s findings weren’t all bad; 92.6% of Americans know that washing hands, avoiding close contact, and avoiding touching one’s face are some of the best ways to stay safe. Also, 96.3% of US respondents correctly said that older adults are most at risk, as well as those with a preexisting health condition.
It’s been repeated over and over again in recent weeks by the media, celebrities, and all over social media: these are uncertain times, and we’re all feeling less secure than modern life has made us accustomed to. Right now it’s easier than ever to fall into paranoia, racism, and conspiracies, but that’s why it’s profoundly important to recognize that these narratives only serve to drive us apart and instill fear.
Finding one group, nation, or evil organization to blame for this pandemic isn’t going to solve anything, just like stockpiling food and toilet paper isn’t going to change anything except make it harder for your neighbor to buy what they need. The past few years the United States has felt particularly divided, but what we all need right now is some unity.
The full research can be found here, published in the Annals of Internal Medicine.