When panic goes viral

Nepali students on their way to the quarantine centre in Bhaktapur after landing in Kathmandu Airport on Sunday morning. Photo: RSS

The global public health crisis caused by the 2019 novel coronavirus has  hospitalised tens of thousands and killed hundreds of people, wrecked tourism in the Asia-Pacific region, impacted civil aviation and slowed down the world economy.

An attempt by the Chinese authorities to suppress first reports from Wuhan is blamed for the initial rise in case load, and its dissemination across China and the world. But it is also China’s willingness to quarantine a whole province that is stopping its spread.

The epidemic has also exposed the challenges to containment in the age of social media. Rumours and conspiracy theories resulting in stigmatisation and xenophobia have become the norm in a global village interconnected instantaneously by internet-based apps.

The media’s habit of magnifying the negative is now exacerbated by the split-second reach of individual posts, click-baits, fake news, and the chain-reaction through shares and likes over web platforms.

Till Wednesday, 2,012 people had died from the Wuhan virus, and 75,227 are hospitalised. These statistics are constantly updated in the media, with countries where it has spread shaded ominously on a world map – giving the impression that it has spread globally.

Yet there are very few mentions anywhere that nearly 15,000 infected people have made full recovery, or that the fatality rate for the virus is a low 2%. Even though no one has yet died in the United States from this virus strain, there is saturation coverage in the media that likens the epidemic to the one in the Hollywood thriller Contagion. Few compare Covid-19 to the common flu that killed nearly 35,000 people in the United States last winter.

The psychology of terror, irrationality of panic, and fear of diseases without cure are not new. What is new this time is mobile communication which allows panic about the virus to go viral.

In Nepal, too, the media was obsessed with the plight of 182 students trapped in Hubei province. The issue was politicised by those opposed to Prime Minister Oli’s government – both within his NCP and without. Media gave prominence to tearful parents, highlighted a letter to the prime minister about his callousness and disregard. Under pressure already for non-performance, the government found the evacuation of the students to a quarantine camp in Bhaktapur a convenient way to show-case action.

If only the government reacted with similar efficiency to other, much more serious, national emergencies like Nepal’s unacceptably high maternal mortality rate. Although there has been a steep drop in the number of women who die in childbirth from 900 per 100,000 in 1990 to 239 today, Nepal has missed the target of reducing that number to 125 this year. It does not look like we will hit the SDG goal of 75 by 2030, either.

More than 1,200 women die in child birth every year in Nepal, that is three every day. Most of these are easily preventable either by ensuring proper nutrition, enforcing the ban on child marriage, ensuring access to ultrasound machines to detect complications in time, and encouraging institutional delivery.

As Buddha Basnyat of the Patan Academy of Health Sciences (PAHS) comments, it is only political will that is stopping Nepal from adopting the game-changer drug Tranexamic acid (TXA) in the treatment of post-partum haemorrhage, (PPH) the most common cause of maternal death. There is a huge 44% unmet need for contraceptives, which is leading to unwanted pregnancies and preventing a further drop in Nepal’s total fertility rate.

Tuberculosis kills 6,000 people in Nepal every year, and every other Nepali is a carrier of the bacillus, which means half the population should actually be quarantined. Yet the health system is supremely unconcerned, and the public is not aware of the risk.

There were 2,736 fatalities in road traffic accidents in Nepal last year. Yet, even though the coronavirus has not killed anyone and there has been only one suspected case, Nepalis are hoarding supplies of masks and hand sanitisers. Meanwhile, vehicles continued to be driven recklessly over precarious roads. Where is the outrage?

Air pollution in Kathmandu Valley, Chitwan and the Tarai is so bad that it is making many people die prematurely, reducing our lifespans by 3.5 years. Where is the peoples’ anger at having their lives cut short? It is ironic that residents of Kharipati are more worried about Nepali students from Wuhan being quarantined in their neighbourhood, than about the toxic fumes emitted by dozens of brick kilns nearby.

To be sure, we cannot afford to be complacent when it comes to new epidemics like Covid-19. However, it is the neglect of easily preventable diseases that kills more people in Nepal -- most often poor people in rural communities. We need a robust health system that prioritises primary health care, trains medical professionals, and builds a well-equipped infrastructure to handle future epidemics.

But that does not make it into the news.

Sonia Awale

Sonia Awale


Sonia Awale is Executive Editor of Nepali Times where she also serves as the health, science and environment correspondent. She has extensively covered the climate crisis, disaster preparedness, development and public health -- looking at their political and economic interlinkages. Sonia is a graduate of public health, and has a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Hong Kong.

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