Coronavirus: How concerned should Wes be?
The 2019 novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV), as it is officially referred to, has attracted a lot of attention from our friends and family. Regardless of the true severity of this outbreak, we urge everyone to be compassionate towards those who feel concern for their loved ones. With that, is the novel coronavirus something that we at Wesleyan have reason to fear?
The basic reproduction rate of any disease is the average number of people to whom an infected person will pass the disease. The basic reproduction rate is not an intrinsic property of the infection. Because this number is based off of real-time data, the basic reproduction rate will change depending on control measures, such as travel restrictions and quarantine. Therefore, the only way to end the coronavirus outbreak is to bring the reproduction rate between zero and one. While the data is preliminary, scientists estimate that “without effective containment measures,” the basic reproduction rate of the novel coronavirus is 1.5-3.5. In other words, if the spread of the virus is not controlled, each infected person will pass the coronavirus to between 1.5 and 3.5 people. Take these numbers with a grain of salt; effective control implementations can lower the basic reproduction rate considerably, as was the case with the SARS and Ebola. Because the infection spreads at an exponential rate, the current trend in 2019 novel coronavirus infectivity seems somewhat alarming. Luckily, this news about the infection rate isn’t the only factor in determining how dangerous the coronavirus is.
The fatality rate is the percentage of those infected who die over the course of the disease. While the fatality rate of the virus is admittedly difficult to estimate we know that it is probably about two percent. While the first cases of the 2019 novel coronavirus were severe, most people who went to the hospital to be inspected were elderly men that experienced strong symptoms. Many of those infected may have had minor symptoms that gradually got better. There may also have been infected people who died without being diagnosed because of understaffed and under-equipped hospitals in central China. Either way, a ballpark estimate for the fatality rate is about two percent.
Why this fatality rate would likely be lower for the Wesleyan student population
The observed fatality rate of about two percent is an average taken from observed statistics. Many of the people who have died of coronavirus tend to be older, and are usually otherwise immunosuppressed people. An analogous situation is seasonal influenza—the flu. Those who die from the flu also tend to be older people with other health issues. While the flu has a much lower case fatality rate (<0.1%), a young person with coronavirus has much less to worry about than an average coronavirus patient. Considering that most Wes students are 18-22 years old, the theoretical coronavirus fatality rate for Wes students would likely be significantly lower than two percent. That is not to say, however, that young people cannot contract the disease.
We would like to acknowledge that these statistics do not apply to everyone at Wesleyan or the Middletown population. Some of us may be immunosuppressed or have other health complications. There are Middletown residents, older students, faculty, and staff here as well, and we do not wish to trivialize those portions of the population. At the time of writing, we do not have reason to believe that the coronavirus is at Wesleyan, but we hope to remain aware of each other’s differences in concerns because of potential differences in vulnerability to infectious disease.
Although the Wesleyan student population faces less threat than the rest of the population, we must take proper precautions for the rest of the community. There is little reason not to take standard hygienic precautions. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends methods that include washing one’s hands, and sneezing into your elbow or a tissue. Doing so would also prevent the spread of seasonal influenza, which kills tens of thousands of people in the United States every year. The WHO currently recommends against the use of face masks if you are in the United States, especially since shortages exist.
Putting it all into perspective
Our aim is to be as compassionate as possible about people’s fears concerning this outbreak. The idea of an invisible and sometimes lethal threat is, after all, pretty scary. But what happens if we compare the global fatality of this disease with some standard causes of death? As of Feb. 6, 2020, there have been at least 565 deaths and more than 28,200 confirmed cases of coronavirus. There have been no deaths due to coronavirus in the United States thus far. We are still in the early stages of infection, so these numbers are bound to increase. However, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in every year during the last decade, 12,000-61,000 people in the USA have died of seasonal influenza. Moreover, seasonal influenza kills 290,000-650,000 people each year worldwide. According to the CDC, the leading cause of death in the USA is heart disease, with about 647,000 deaths occurring each year. These deaths occur every single year, but they do not instill the same type of fear as the novel coronavirus. We cannot say how far the mortality rate of coronavirus will rise, but we can monitor this number and continually compare it to rates of death due to other diseases.
This statement is not meant to trivialize any fear or suffering that the coronavirus has caused so far; our hearts go out to those in Wuhan. The situation is much worse in Wuhan because of medical, social, and political reasons. Many people in Wuhan have been isolated for extended periods of time with food and medicine shortages. The purpose of these comparisons is to remind people at Wes that there are other causes of death that we rarely pay attention to. While we understand why people might be afraid, our level of fear often can be disproportionate to the true danger of coronavirus. As coronavirus spreads, we may gain more reason to be concerned, but that time has not yet come.
Where’s the line between necessary precaution and racial discrimination?
A concern that popped into our heads repeatedly while writing this article is that we may create perceived racial tensions that may not have existed before the time this is written. However, there have been some reported cases of Chinese or Asian students on campus experiencing forms of discrimination. We would like to acknowledge the discomfort these students may have felt during the outbreak. We also want to recognize the intensity of the fear that has affected some people’s behavior. The coronavirus outbreak can be difficult for those who fear and feel feared. There also have been some social media posts and memes circulating that propagate Sinophobia.
As the WHO declared a global health emergency after the virus continued to spread to countries including the United States, the coronavirus outbreak has been generalized to be “a Chinese virus.” The coronavirus did originate in China and most of the infected people worldwide are Chinese. However, Chinese or Asian appearance is closely related to the assumption of “being infectious.” This fear of outbreak can potentially contribute to xenophobic attitudes. This dilemma asks a difficult question: where is the line between necessary precaution and racial discrimination?
Some responses to the outbreak can be seen as a rational calculation based on the risk of infection. It is not always easy to discern the boundaries between understandable fear and discrimination.
“It is important for people to understand what exactly this virus is because at the same time, it is true that there are the problems of xenophobia but we should also not underestimate the danger of this virus,” Mohamed-Dhia Hammami ’20 said.
Panic about the coronavirus has spread to two university campuses in Connecticut, as a student at Wesleyan and a Chinese high school student at a Yale Model UN conference were suspected to have contracted the virus, though both were tested negative.
“After the news of a Wesleyan student getting suspected for coronavirus, people from the school who [I had] not been in contact [with] for a long time started to ask if I am the student who’s in isolation,” a Chinese student, who wished to remain anonymous, told us. “It came to me that people are generalizing Chinese with coronavirus suspects. I don’t know if I’m overthinking, but this act of automatically associating coronavirus with Chinese nationality makes me feel uncomfortable.”
On social media, there are posts that warn people to stay away from Chinese people, and some memes make fun of reports that the virus jumped from animals to humans. On a Wesleyan Instagram account, a meme titled “When my roommate who just came back from visiting family in China tells me she’s feeling a bit sick…” featuring the face of a scared man, made some Chinese students feel uneasy.
For the sake of preserving anonymity, names and other identifying features of those involved in the following incidents have been omitted.
A Chinese mainland student told us that after they came back to college from the airport, they had a problem receiving University staff’s assistance for dormitory lockout. They reported that the staff member, after ensuring that the student was not ill, still asked them to keep their mask on and stay at least 20 feet away. The student said that they understood the reasons why the Wesleyan staff member would take such precautions, but the way the Wesleyan staff member approached them made them very uncomfortable and self-conscious.
“I think people’s first reaction shouldn’t be that you have Coronavirus because you look Asian,” the student said. “This assumption is rude.”
The perception of what it means when people wear surgical masks varies greatly in the East and the West. Most people from China have been educated that wearing a mask is a measure of self-protection: a way of preventing or decreasing the chance of getting ill, as well as avoiding passing sickness to others. However, most westerners see masks as a clear sign of existing illness. The deviation in the interpretation of wearing a mask ultimately comes from different cultural customs. Though masks may indicate sickness, they are not an indication of being infected by coronavirus for most Chinese international students.
Another student, who would like to remain anonymous, informed us that after they returned to campus from China, they used tissue to clean their room. Their roommate, upon finding the pile of used tissues, assumed that they were ill, and recommended that the student visit the Health Center as a precaution. The student, in order to set their friend at ease, visited the Health Center, whereupon they were diagnosed with no symptoms or illness. A few days later, the student was contacted by their Residential Advisor about their supposed symptoms. The student discovered that their roommate had spoken to their parents, who subsequently informed the office of Residential Life about their concern.
“I think it’s normal to have concern in their position,” the student said. “But I did not appreciate that they got their parents involved instead of directly communicating to me.”
We understand that these situations may be complicated to deal with, and that they are very uncomfortable to confront. However, we encourage everybody to communicate directly and clearly about their potential concerns. It is important at this moment for everyone to have mutual compassion and respect for each other.
It is true that students who have recently come back from China are at a higher risk of harboring coronavirus. With that said, we must distinguish medical precautions from potentially racist and discriminatory behavior. We understand that we can’t always tell whether an individual is motivated by necessary precautions or Sinophobia, but we would like to ask everyone to simply be compassionate towards one another and think before you act or speak. Be tactful and communicate respectfully without alienating the other party. It is crucial to show compassion and respect around campus at a time when racial identity is especially vulnerable to xenophobia and bigotry.
If you would like to learn more, please explore Wesleyan’s emergency response plan guidelines on the Health and Safety Programs page of the Wesleyan website.
Maria Tan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Oliver Cho can be reached at email@example.com.