If there is only one thing to take away from China’s 2019 coronavirus outbreak, it’s that panic spreads faster than a virus. While China’s response to the epidemic was decisive and undoubtedly necessary, some of the more recent global developments related to the outbreak are somewhat concerning. Canceled events, xenophobia towards Asian people, suspended flights to China, cruise ships being denied port of entry despite having no coronavirus cases on board – this is just a small portion of the absurdity dominating the media field these days.
Media, in fact, are part of the problem, and we, being of the same kin with millions of other information outlets, have to apologize on behalf of those of us who favor facts over clickbait headlines. There’s a lot said about the outbreak. We ourselves have examined the situation from various angles spanning economy, culture and technology. However, we would try to stay away from things that we don’t understand.
Somehow everyone seems to be an expert nowadays. There’s nothing wrong in having opinions and asking questions. However, opinions should remain opinions, unless backed by facts and questions need to be directed to the right people.
Ray Dalio, billionaire investor and founder of Bridgewater Associates, went on social media recently to comment on a statement he made when asked about the coronavirus by journalists. “It was reported that I said that I believe that reports of the Coronavirus are exaggerated. <…> I think that I am a “dumb sh**” relative to experts on the subject so I shouldn’t be asked, but if I were to guess, there is a wide range of possible outcomes,” he posted. “I think the most likely outcome is that this virus will be a larger version of SARS that will have a significant temporary effect but won’t have a big long term influence, so the downward market price moves related to it are probably becoming exaggerated. While my statement wasn’t accurately reported, I probably should have just stopped answering at the point of trying to convey that I’m a dumb sh** on that subject. Sorry for my part of that confusion.”
Dalio’s frustration is understandable. Media can go to great lengths in pursuit of sensational statements, without so much as wondering if their interlocutor is qualified to comment on the issue at hand. This happens all too often in regards to the current coronavirus outbreak.
Fake news and misinformation are a problem at the forefront of the Chinese government’s attention and local social media giants like WeChat and Weibo are all involved in the rumor debunking struggle. Yet dealing with this crisis without panic should not only be a Chinese priority, as it concerns all of us. This is not the first pandemic we’ve witnessed and certainly not the last, and the next one could originate literally anywhere.
In his now viral Linkedin article “”Something’s Not Right Here Folks” | A Look at USA 2009 H1N1 Virus Compared to China 2020 Corona Virus”, Mario Cavolo, a long time China resident, level-headedly highlighted the inconsistencies between reporting on both events. Somehow, the Chinese coronavirus outbreak gets way more publicity than the American swine flu despite significantly lower infection and death rates.
On the brighter note, the overblown publicity and the drastic measures taken by the Chinese government to contain the virus have given a new boost to China’s innovation engines putting a spotlight on technologies like productivity apps, service robots, streaming, video-dating and more. Not a day has passed during the past two weeks without a new technological solution being suggested to ease people’s day-to-day lives at a time of an essentially total nationwide quarantine.
Sadly, the bulk of these solutions are intended only to limit human-to-human contact instead of focusing on the things that really matter, for instance, preventing a similar crisis from happening again by encouraging people to develop personal hygiene habits.
It is utterly dreadful to imagine a future where after several similar crises these technologies permeate our lives in a way that makes human-to-human contact effectively impossible. In theory that could end all our problems. The quarantine showed that we can work from home pretty efficiently communicating through video-chat. Delivery robots and drones will soon be able to deliver anything to our doorsteps. And with the development of 5G, AI and autonomous driving, if we fall sick in the future, we could be picked up by a self-driving ambulance and treated by a robot-doctor operated by a real doctor thousands of miles away through 5G networks. And don’t even get me started on dating.
The danger of overreacting at a time of crisis is in that we can make it worse while thinking that we’re doing good. Watching online music festivals and product launches, video-chatting with strangers, and reading rumor rebuttals is all fun and games until it turns into a routine. Only when online music festivals become the only type of music festivals and fake news become indiscernible from facts will we know that we’re in deep trouble. While all of those now sound as major exaggerations (which they are), there’s always a slim chance that we, as flawed as we are, could take a wrong turn, so let’s just sit back, take a deep breath and calmly wait for nature and health professionals to do their jobs.