‘Containing panic and misinformation tougher than fighting coronavirus’ | Sunday Observer
People in Sri Lanka have no need to fear

‘Containing panic and misinformation tougher than fighting coronavirus’

Confirmed cases of coronavirus from around the world have now topped 11,000 since the initial outbreak of the disease in December 2019. Since then the virus has been spreading across the world causing fear and panic. But even as China reported the first death on January 9 when a 61-year-old man from Wuhan, the epicentre of the outbreak succumbed to the deadly virus over 4,000 km away, Sri Lankans remained calm.

However, it was clear that 20 days later the virus had eventually made its way to Sri Lanka when a Chinese tourist was admitted to the National Institute of Infectious Diseases (NIID) in Angoda. Tests revealed the 40-year-old female from Hubei, China was infected with the novel coronavirus.

She continues to receive treatment at the hospital along with 16 other suspected individuals infected with coronavirus. Despite the assurances by the Minister of Health and Indigenous Medical Services Pavithra Wanniarachchi and officials of the Ministry of Health that all necessary steps have been taken to contain the possible spread of the virus in Sri Lanka, panic appeared to take hold of the populace fuelled by misinformation on social media.

The notice in the restaurant.

According to Consultant Physician NIID Dr. Ananda Wijewickrama, containing the panic and dissemination of misinformation has proved tougher than fighting the actual disease.

The public panic was evident as stores ran out of disinfectant products, surgical masks and N95 masks. Sellers even hiked prices with the government being forced to implement a maximum retail price for masks.

When a youth fainted at the World Trade Centre last week no one approached him believing he may have contracted the virus.

After the youth was taken out on a stretcher by men wearing masks, it was later revealed he had been merely suffering from hunger. In a similar incident it was reported that when a student fainted at a girl’s school in the Central province, the teachers had fled in fear.

In Galle, bus operators complained that people were getting off the Expressway buses when tourists, especially Asians would get in, in fear they are infected with the virus. Even as experts such as Prof. Malik Peiris explained that it was unnecessary for individuals who have not been infected by the virus to wear a mask, people were seen wearing them in urban areas of the country. Certain shops have now refused to serve Chinese nationals.

According to Chief Epidemiologist, Dr. Sudath Samaraweera majority of the cases reported out of China are however linked to Wuhan. He said many patients admitted or seeking medical help had come due to fear and panic. “However none of them fit the criteria of having the coronavirus,” he said. “For example, some parents whose children go to international schools would call us and ask if it was ok to send their children to school as there were Chinese students in the school,” he added. According to Dr. Samaraweera residents in the NIID area had also agitated against the hospital when suspected patients were admitted there. “We have had to face so many concerns raised and counteract them,” he noted

Dr. Wijewickrama agrees. According to him many calls and admissions are out of panic than a rational fear. “Many have not even traveled to China in recent times or had direct contact with a patient who has contracted the virus,” he said. “This situation is made worse by social media,” he said adding that panic has been created both of social media and traditional media” he added.

Referring to a news report carried by a national newspaper on minor workers at the NIID not attending work, Dr. Wijewickrama said it was a completely fabricated story. While admitting there are fewer patients coming in for regular treatment, Dr. Wijewickrama said matters have been made worse by reportage such as this leading people to believe they will not get the necessary health care if they visit the hospital.

“It can even lead to panic among other hospital workers” he noted.

According to him, people are so panicked that they have forgotten that influenza is still found in the country and has even led to deaths. “When they get any symptom now they automatically think its coronavirus” he added.

Dr. Samaraweera pointed out that Health officials have taken a plethora of measures such as stopping on arrival visas for Chinese nationals, screening at the airport, installing thermal scanners, establishing a health desk.

According to Dr. Samaraweera passengers arriving must complete a health declaration form allowing officials to trace their whereabouts in the country. “Students and workers arriving from China will be observed and officials will follow up with them” he added.

However, as a result of the ensuing panic, many individuals appear to be attempting to gain advantage from the situation. Soothsayers and unqualified Ayurvedic doctors all appear to have an opinion or cure for the disease. There also appears to be an artificially induced shortage of surgical masks in the market created by unscrupulous sellers.

Five sellers who had attempted to sell masks at exorbitant prices were booked by the authorities last week. People have been directed to inform authorities on hotline number 1977 of such sellers.

While pointing out that it is important to take maximum precautions, Dr. Wijewickrama said it is important to adhere to the guidelines set to reduce the general risk of transmission. “But it is clear that transmission of the virus in other countries outside China remains low,” he said.

Dr. Samaraweera also assured that there is no evidence to prove that the virus is spreading in Sri Lanka. “All measures have been taken and no patient admitted is in serious condition” he noted.

“We request the media to act responsibly.” Dr. Wijewickrama said adding that the people in Sri Lanka had no need to fear.