It’s the year 2020 and information has never been so accessible and prevalent in our lives. Since the invention of social media, people have been able to communicate and share their lives instantly with others from across the planet. News outlets have had to adapt, and there’s one place news spreads quickly: the social networks. However, this often leads to the misinterpretation of the truth or outright fake news. With the recent outbreak of the Coronavirus, or COVID-19, these platforms have been at a constant battle with fake news—and with it comes hysteria. By examining technology, the media, and the public’s different responses to this new virus, the spread of hysteria and how and where it is evident in today’s society can be ascertained, as it pertains to the economy and public health, as well as how COVID-19-related hysteria has changed since the outbreak. None of the presented information is meant to downplay the importance of common health standards, hygiene, or those who’ve lost their lives to COVID-19. Rather, the purpose is to detail the hysteria associated with COVID-19 and its effect on public health and the global economy. Note that the hysteria described originates from both sides of the political spectrum.
Connection to STS Theory
The COVID-19 situation is a perfect example of the interconnected relationship between society, technology, and science (STS)—in particular, the actor-network theory and social constructivism. COVID-19 has created worldwide dilemma. It affects people and is affected by what people do as well. Additionally, social constructivism is at play because technology and science are always advancing, and they are advancing at a particularly rapid rate thanks to COVID-19.
What is COVID-19?
To begin, what exactly is COVID-19? It is a type of Coronavirus that emerged in 2019 and has resulted in many deaths and panic around the world. COVID-19 is a contagious respiratory virus that is primarily spread in the air and on droplets of sweat or saliva. According to the CDC, the average mortality rate for patients 29 years and younger is less than 1%, while for patients over the age of 80, the rate can increase to 10% (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). Additionally, the hospitalization rate has steadily continued to grow over the last few months, but so has testing capacity (Parker). It was first spotted in September in Wuhan, China, and has since spread to virtually every country in the world. All in all, Coronavirus symptoms are very similar to the flu (cough, fever, chills, aches, headaches), with some new symptoms like the loss of smell or taste, and shortness of breath. Current (Sept. 2020) trends reflect similar statistics when it comes to the symptoms recorded by the patients, including the rate of severity of those symptoms (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention).
The Public’s Response & Hysteria
With the media coverage of this virus, combined with the discourse over social media, hysteria has never been more prevalent than with COVID-19. When referring to the media, we normally encompass major news outlets, such as CNN, NBC, and FOX News, as well as online media platforms such as YouTube. It is an understatement to say that these platforms play a major role in the lives of many Americans, particularly young adults and teenagers, as they allow for the quick and easy consumption of news from around the world. The platforms also provide the ability to share information with anyone, including those who are not on the social media platform in which the information originated. Hysteria is nothing new to those who are experienced in social media trends, such as was the case with the appearance of clowns hoax that spread across the nation in 2016 (“2016 Clown Sightings“). Nevertheless, hysteria has become rampant again—this time, in the form of a global pandemic.
Now, the word pandemic in itself is likely to spark fear among the masses, and it has. The Bubonic Plague that killed one-third of Europe’s population in the Middle Ages was one of the most deadliest pandemics to date. So, what is a pandemic, and what is the difference between a pandemic and an epidemic? According to Dan Epstein, a spokesman for the Pan American Health Organization, a regional office of the World Health Organization, “A pandemic is basically a global epidemic—an epidemic that spreads to more than one continent” (Downs). An epidemic, in this case, is defined as a mass local infection of a population, usually with a new disease. It’s pretty clear why most people would be fearful of a new disease, especially that of unknown origin. While the geological origin of COVID-19 is Wuhan, China, the debate of whether the virus originated from a nearby Wuhan laboratory or caves in China remain unanswered, but that will be discussed in a later section.
So, how has the United States responded to this new virus? After the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was notified of an unknown respiratory virus spreading in Wuhan, the United States banned travel from China in late January of 2020. Shortly after, other countries followed suit, with China closing their borders in late March (Palmer). However, by this point, it was too late, and COVID-19 had spread to over one-hundred-eight countries. There is a lot of controversy about China’s transparency during the initial three months of the outbreak, in which it’s estimated that the number of infected people in China could have been over six times what they reported to the World Health Organization and CDC in February alone (Seidel). This failure of transparency left many countries underprepared to handle the outbreak of the virus. By February, hospitals were already overfilled in many places across the world. In March, many countries were in complete economic lockdown, including the United States. Among the first methods used to deter the spread of COVID-19 was the mandatory use of face masks and social distancing in public spaces—and these methods have proven the most effective. On the other hand, the method of shutting down the country has proven ineffective in the long-run, leading to stress, loss of revenue for thousands of small businesses, and overall deterioration of the economy. As the WHO Director stated in July of 2020, “It is going to be almost impossible for individual countries to keep their borders shut for the foreseeable future,” pointing out that “economies have to open up, people have to work, [and] trade has to resume.” (Richardson). As a result, states began to lift their lockdown restrictions between July and September.
Another largely-observed effect of COVID-19 in America was the shortage of N95 respirator masks. N95 masks are essential for health care workers, as they are constantly exposed to patients infected with COVID-19 and worse, but the mass consumption of these masks by everyday consumers is creating a risk for those workers due to N95 mask shortages, in part due to their mass production in China. These masks are partly a scientific (health) invention, and due to advances in mass production and communication, more are being ordered. Hysteria plays the part of the public health offender, as N95 masks are generally for medical use and are vital for those working in medical positions. Initial paranoia about the spread of the virus caused a spike in demand for these respirators, but there was not enough supply to meet the demand. Fortunately, they are not necessary to prevent the spread of COVID-19, as cloth masks are enough to limit the viral matter spread via saliva exalted from the mouth and nose, even if N95 respirators are more effective at preventing those viral particles from entering their respiratory airways (as opposed to just preventing the spread of the virus) (Garg & Garg).
Global Impact of COVID-19
COVID-19 has greatly impacted the world in every aspect—socially, technologically, scientifically, and economically. Across the globe, businesses have suffered, the populous have grown anxious and sick, and technology has had to adapt as this worldwide pandemic continued, watched from the eyes of millions on TVs, smartphones, and computers. One important aspect of the COVID-19 pandemic is the psychological effects that are experienced by millions of people. Even after lockdowns were lifted, people still experienced immense amounts of stress, which resulted in less exercise and overall less self-care. A scientific journal in March 2020 by Nidal Moukaddam and Asim Shah, two medical experts discusses the psychological impacts of Coronavirus on human health and offers advice on how to combat them. The two authors emphasize the importance of self-care and research (fact-checking) to help reduce the ill psychological effects of hysteria (Moukaddam & Shah). Many social changes have taken place, too, such as social distancing, masks in the workplace, and more remote learning. Furthermore, innovations have been birthed from this time of turmoil, such as software that enables communication, 5G, and bandwidth enhancements.
Project PREDICT, Labs, & Natural Origin: Where Did It All Start?
In order to understand the root of the hysteria surrounding COVID-19, the different theories on the actual origin of the virus must be inspected. On one end of the political spectrum, a commonly accepted theory is that COVID-19 evolved naturally from the wildness in China, and the virus is not manufactured. This is advocated mostly by the Democratic Party and liberal media. On the other end of the political spectrum, a commonly accepted theory is that COVID-19 originated from a laboratory stationed in Wuhan, China, and that it may or may not be manufactured. This is advocated mostly by the Republican Party and conservative media.
The Scripps Research Institute, a nonprofit American medical research facility that focuses on research and education in the biomedical sciences has refuted a commonly accepted theory on the origin of coronavirus. This theory, mainly spread by Republican, is that the coronavirus originated in a Wuhan laboratory, using RNA samples and sequencing as proof of natural evolution (Scripps Family Institute). It should be noted that the laboratory theory is also supported by whistleblower cases, such as the one by Dr. Li-Meng Yan (Chakraborty & Diaz). However, the validity of this whistleblower case, like many, is up for interpretation (little to no evidence). The Scripps Research Institute argues that COVID-19 evolved naturally from a viral strain found in the wild, likely from bats, and there is little evidence to support the argument that COVID-19 is a man-made virus.
As for the opposing argument, Dr. Li-Meng Yan, a Chinese scientist and whistleblower, has been on the news to detail her story as of why she fled China and to give some theories as to the origin of Coronavirus and China’s attempt at covering up its spread (Chakraborty & Diaz). We may never know the true origins, as some scientific studies have concluded that the Coronavirus simply evolved from bat-like viruses, as they share similar viral features (Scripps Family Institute). However, it cannot be ruled out that China has not been transparent about the coronavirus outbreak, which has greatly affected the world (Li). Whistleblower cases are always difficult to fact-check, especially when it concerns foreign government or sensitive information, but China’s unilateral Communist Party has been found guilty of covering up and silencing medical-related data as well. The origins of the virus have not been definitively proven. This includes medical research and globally-released pandemic information, such as in 2003 with the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) (Little). Whistleblowers should be given the same “innocent until proven guilty” treatment as everyone else, as historically they have leaked sensitive data to the world, such as the Snowden case in 2013 (British Broadcasting Corporation).
There is a third argument that supports the unnatural origin of COVID-19, although it is pure speculation. Project PREDICT is an international $200 million dollar research project with labs across the world that studies the engineering and biology of viruses (Guterl et al.). There have been many recorded outbreaks from labs that were a part of this international project, including smallpox in the U.S. about a decade ago and SARS in China in 2002. Due to their history of shoddy practice, many believe the laboratory in Wuhan, which is a part of Project PREDICT, is responsible for the COVID-19 outbreak, although there is no current evidence to support this theory. The U.S. has currently ended further relations to the project, which is being met with some backlash (Global Biodefense Staff).
After examining some widely believed theories on the origin of COVID-19 from the left-wing and right-wing of the political spectrum, it is not difficult to see why hysteria spreads so quickly. There is little knowledge, and a lot of speculation, which opens the door to theories, and the more believable the theory, the more likely it is to be believed by the mass public.
While hysteria and fake news remains rampant in the media and social networks, there is a real correlation between fear and COVID-19, as backed up by the millions of people who have been infected with the virus. Morgan Madison, an 18 year old from Chandler, Arizona, wrote:
“I really wasn’t paying attention at all—I didn’t really care [about the virus]… I work at a car dealership, and my GM got back from a seven-country tour, and four or five days after he got back I had a sore throat. Our receptionist got a horrible cough too. She just stopped coming to work. Last Monday, I got to my desk and just started hacking up a lung… I woke up the next day and felt like trash. I felt I had inhaled glue. My throat was sticky. I was coughing. Lots of migraines. Horrible migraines. It just went from feeling great to taking a five-hour nap in the afternoon. There was dizziness and confusion. Sometimes I feel fine, then the coughing up a lung came back. There were a couple of times I’ll just be sitting on the floor hitting my inhaler” (Graff).
Other patients report similar stories, while many share similar recovery stories, as well. Howard Yoon wrote: “The next morning, like a storm clearing, I woke up and my fever was just gone. At 6 am, I was 98.4.” Much like other viruses, symptoms appeared to clear within days to just over a week (Graff). Others, unfortunately, experienced far worse symptoms. David Lat, a legal recruiter from New York City, wrote:
“How did I get the coronavirus? I have no idea; it was true community spread. And I was also contributing to that spread, because I (stupidly and cavalierly) brushed off my initial mild symptoms and went to the gym, office, etc. On Thursday, 3/12, I woke up fever-free without having taken fever-reducing meds, which struck me as great. In fact, by that afternoon I was thinking that maybe I was over whatever little three-day bug I had. Boy, was I wrong. On Thursday afternoon/evening, I developed a nasty cough, replete with heavy chest congestion. This continued into Friday, which is when my fever returned (101.6). Unfortunately, I got worse over the weekend, my coughing having progressed to the point where it was making it hard for me to breathe. On Sunday, 3/15, I made my way to the emergency room at NYU Langone Medical Center, my nearest ER. I don’t want to be presumptuous, since my condition is stable but still serious. I require 24/7 oxygen, I need a nurse’s help for even the simplest tasks, and I only just now progressed to solid foods. So I’m not out of the proverbial woods yet” (Graff).
To sum up some of their accounts, most who are infected experience mild flu-like symptoms or no symptoms at all. However, few may experience long-lasting trauma and fear from seemingly COVID-19-related brain damage.
So, is the hysteria justified? As previously presented by those who have been infected, there is real fear behind the hysteria associated with COVID-19, and valid reasoning—nobody wants to get sick. But there is also a major amplification by the public, likely a result of left-wing and right-wing news outlets, as well as misinformation or misinterpretation on social media platforms. So, in conclusion, the answer is: not entirely.
To conclude, hysteria and fake news has been a never-ending battle involving news outlets and the public. With the introduction of COVID-19 to the world, this presence has never been more prevalent. Social media continues to amplify the ill effects of this virus, as opposed to highlighting the rapid recoveries of millions of people, and the psychological and economic impacts of the virus have continued to take its toll. As previously presented by those who have been infected, there is real fear behind the hysteria associated with COVID-19, but there is also a major amplification by the public, likely a result of left-wing and right-wing news outlets, as well as misinformation or misinterpretation on social media platforms. This new and scary situation is a perfect example of the interconnected relationship between society, technology, and science, which have impacted—and will continue to impact—our world.
As of November 9, 2020, there is news of a COVID-19 vaccine (Neergaard & Johnson) with 90% efficacy, which may help to ease the hysteria surrounding this virus and calm the public as this news spreads throughout the media and makes its way to every household in the world.
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