COUGHING, FEVER, runny nose—these are symptoms that arise when one starts to feel sick. In December 2019, numbers of such flu-like cases began to rise significantly in Wuhan, a city in China, to which at first glance, it appeared similar to the common cold. However, these cases turned out to be way more serious—within less than a month, Wuhan became the center of an epidemic of the virus identified as Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19). With rapid transmission amid the lack of information on this completely new virus, COVID-19 poses difficulty for health officials as they struggle to figure out causes and uncertainties, while stoking public fear.
Coronaviruses are a group of viruses that cause a variety of illnesses, particularly respiratory infections, in mammals, birds, and in humans. However, rarer forms of coronaviruses have emerged three times so far in the 21st century: Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in 2003, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) in 2012, and COVID-19, the most recent outbreak of the coronavirus. Provisionally named the novel coronavirus, COVID-19 is a newly identified contagious virus that started in Wuhan, the capital of Hubei province in China in mid-December 2019, with its transmission spreading across China in January 2020 and in numerous countries in Asia, Europe, North America, and Oceania. According to researchers at South China Agricultural University, the pangolin is a potential suspect of the spread of COVID-19 as research showed that the genome sequences of viruses found in pangolins were 99% identical to those on patients of COVID-19*. However, little is known about the origins of the virus—while some scientists estimate that it emerged from bats, public health officials on the other hand view that the outbreak originated in an animal and seafood market in Wuhan. Currently, the World Health Organization (WHO) is closely monitoring the situation and carrying out investigations to identify the pathogen causing the outbreak.
The impacts of COVID-19
So far within less than two months, COVID-19 has spread to approximately 26 more countries outside of China, with a total of over 69,256 confirmed cases of infection and more than 1,669 deaths as of Feb. 16, 2020**. According to the WHO, the first death outside of China was confirmed to be a 44-year-old man in the Philippines, who caught the virus while unknowingly travelling with the first person in the Philippines diagnosed with the virus. In the United States, 15 cases of the infection were reported, with most cases being people who recently travelled to Wuhan.
As one of China’s closest neighbors, South Korea is no exception to the damages caused by COVID-19. The first case was reported on Jan. 20, 2020; the patient travelled to Korea after residing in Wuhan. Since then, several more infected were announced, accumulating to a total of 29 confirmed cases as of February 16. According to Business Insider, most of the patients were those who have not travelled to China and instead were infected by those who have. Amid the rapid increase in coronavirus infections, the South Korean government scaled up its infectious disease alert level from yellow to red—the second highest readiness level in the four-tiered system which illustrates the spread of a disease in the country***. In response to the concerns over the virus’ transmission, Korea began to take various measures to deal with the issue, including efforts made by the Korea Center for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC) to determine details of patients’ whereabouts, and the Ministry of Health and Welfare’s (MOHW) stringent quarantine inspections and screening measures taken at airports and seaports. Furthermore, over 700 nationals evacuated from Wuhan were put under a 14-day quarantine program at the Police Human Resources Development Institute located in Asan, where individuals were screened for symptoms or signs of infections before being released from the center.
The outbreak also changed how Koreans celebrate two major academic milestones—the beginning of school and graduation ceremonies. According to the Ministry of Education, approximately 340 schools, kindergartens, and day-care centers nationwide postponed reopening after the winter vacation. Numerous middle and high schools scaled back their graduation ceremonies by holding them in classrooms instead of school auditoriums and preventing parents from attending the events****. Universities such as Yonsei University and Seoul National University are also on high alert ahead of the upcoming semester; Campus administrations conducted surveys to check whether any new or currently enrolled students are from Wuhan, and postponed or cancelled all major school events such as graduations, entrance ceremonies, orientations, and gatherings held for incoming freshmen students. “It is unfortunate that events had to be cancelled,” said Park Jin-woo (Soph., Dept. of Political Science & Int’l Studies), President of the Department of Political Science and Int. Studies Student Council, “but we are putting a lot of effort into making up for the cancellation of orientation and other events scheduled for new freshmen students.” With most academic affairs and major on-campus events involving contact with others and people gathering in one area, many schools are considering online alternatives. However, Park voiced that it is a concern whether such online measures can be carried out successfully.
The repercussions of the outbreak are also increasing concerns over economic growth. According to CNN News, though the economic effect of the virus remains unpredictable, there is a possibility that China’s growth rate could drop two percentage points, which amounts to a $62 billion loss. The case is similar for South Korea; in a report by Korea Investment and Securities (KIS) titled “The Effects of the Virus on the Domestic Economy and Exchange Rate,” it was noted that COVID-19 shows greater impact than the 2003 SARS outbreak. Given that the percentage of Chinese tourists tripled that of during the time of SARS, the report warned that the effects of the decline in travel revenues could be greater*****. “In a scenario of widespread infection, it could weaken economic growth and fiscal positions of governments in Asia,” said a report from S&P Global Ratings. As businesses temporarily shut down and numerous people around the world avoid public facilities and gatherings, the virus poses a possible risk in economic activity and to financial markets, putting downward pressure on both the local and global economy.
“Why don’t you just stay home?”
With COVID-19 becoming a pandemic, tensions are developing between China and the world. Several governments and airlines have begun to isolate China by banning travel to and from the country in an attempt to stay safe from infection. On Jan. 31, 2020, the United States issued an order barring entry to foreign nationals who travelled to China in the past 14 days; the decision was announced a day after the WHO declared the outbreak as a global public health emergency. Other countries including Australia and Singapore joined the United States by denying entry to non-citizens travelling from China.
As countries all over the world closed their doors to China, South Korean citizens demanded their government to do the same. On Jan. 23, 2020, a petition titled, “Request to ban Chinese entry” was posted on the Blue House Online Public Petition portal. This petition for the temporary prohibition of the entrance of people from China was signed by over 670,000 people in just 12 days as of February 1st******. With the online public petition system requiring a minimum of 200,000 signatures within a 30-day time span for an official reply from the government, South Korea announced that all foreign nationals who have been to China’s Hubei province in the past two weeks will be subject to a temporary entry ban. According to The Korea Herald, with Chinese nationals accounting for 98% of foreign visitors travelling to Jeju Island without visas in 2019 and a Chinese woman who visited the island being diagnosed with the virus, the Jeju provincial government announced that the visa-free program for foreign travellers to Jeju Island will be temporarily suspended. “The virus transmission path across local communities must be more tightly blocked,” said Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun in an official meeting held on February 2nd, “There is a need to come up with mid to long-term responses to the worst-case scenarios*******.”
However, as governments and health officials are working to contain the spread of the virus, another issue remains unabated—racism and xenophobia. As COVID-19 dominates news headlines all over the world, racist and xenophobic remarks targeting people of Chinese and Asian descent have surfaced online and in everyday life. While efforts to contain the spread of the virus through entry bans are considered practical, others unfairly target East Asian people—several cases of public services such as taxis and restaurants turning away Chinese patrons were reported. Le Courrier Picard—a daily newspaper in France—was condemned for publishing a front-page headline describing the coronavirus as a “yellow alert” and an online version reading “new yellow peril,” as the expression was a phrase of racist fear used in the 19th century that targeted Asians. Similarly, the University of California, Berkeley faced backlash over a now deleted Instagram post that listed xenophobia as one of the common reactions to the spread of the virus. With such racist sentiments proliferating throughout social media, the spread of misinformation rooted by racially insensitive stereotypes also surfaced. With the lack of information on the origins of COVID-19, speculations were exacerbated by social media posts that claimed that the virus is linked to people eating bats in China amid the outbreak. In one instance, a video of a Chinese woman eating a cooked bat went viral; although the video was not taken in China or during the outbreak, it prompted online outrage with users criticizing Chinese and Asian eating habits for the spread of the virus. Chinese restaurants also claimed that business operations are struggling due to widespread misconceptions about the “cleanliness” of their food********.
Such prejudice is reminiscent of the 2003 SARS outbreak to which numerous Asians experienced extensive xenophobia, yet it appears that social response to outbreaks of viruses remains unchanged. “As an East Asian, I cannot help but feel uncomfortable,” wrote Sam Phan, a student at the University of Manchester in a column in The Guardian, “My ethnicity made me feel like I was part of a threatening and diseased mass.” To counter racism, numerous people took to social media and the streets in response—from a French hashtag translated as “I’m not a virus” trending on social media platform Twitter to rallies demanding eradication of prejudice, many stood with the Asian community and reacted to the anti-Asian sentiments that emerged since the spread of the coronavirus. Furthermore, according to The Guardian, companies such as Google and YouTube partnered with the WHO to contain coronavirus misinformation by displaying links to reputable health sources when users search about it, and rewiring search results to make it more difficult to find any content that include false statements. While long-term effectiveness of such policies remain in question, companies and health officials are taking measures to deal with both the spread of the virus and the wave of discrimination in the wake of the epidemic.
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Just several months ago, COVID-19 was unknown to science. Now, researchers and health officials are working to understand it in order to prevent further spread. The total extent of the outbreak will be difficult to predict, and questions and uncertainties have yet to be answered. Nevertheless, there are two things to remember: wash your hands and do not allow misconceptions to dictate how we react to the virus.
****The Korea Herald
******Blue House Online Public Petition portal