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The Connection Between Social Reactions to Coronavirus and Moral Panic

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To most people, experts and non-experts in the field, the economic risks and consequences of outbreaks, pandemics and epidemics are clear and tangible: the cost for health systems, disruption and reduction in labour productivity, decreased trade and decline in travel and tourism, to name just a few

However, if one had to look at news titles and pictures shared across the globe, one would identify a fundamental multiplier factor: panic – a level of distress beyond the “toilet paper panic” seen in Hong Kong, Singapore or, more recently, in Italy.

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We've also seen people shaming crowds still physically gathered at bars and social venues. Much of this has taken too stern or smug a tone for me; I think it's important to remember that as of a few days ago, leaders were still widely advocating that those without symptoms keep patronizing local businesses (an idea officials in some communities are still pushing). Not everyone has been getting the same steady diet of escalating horrors that the extremely online are. Nonetheless, the social shaming is arguably serving an important function now too, as long as it stays away from singling out individuals. Now that state and local governments are ordering businesses to close early or entirely, social media will fill another important function: documenting police attempts to enforce these rules. Unfortunately, curfew and quarantine enforcement inevitably mean new opportunities for police overreach, profiling, and violence. The best hope Americans have of lessening this is YouTube, Instagram, and other sites that make it easier to bear witness

"After four years in which social media has been viewed as an antisocial force," Smith suggests, "the crisis is revealing something surprising, and a bit retro: Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and others can actually deliver on their old promise to democratize information and organize communities." He talked to leaders at these companies, plus Pinterest and Snapchap, about how they have been handling coronavirus misinformation. Misinformation still abounds on these platforms, of course. But so do opportunities to correct it—at least in a relatively free society. The president himself may be among those downplaying the disease's seriousness, but anyone with a Twitter account can publicly push back at him. In China, where government tightly regulates digital platforms, we've seen authorities use social media to spread damaging propaganda that citizens aren't allowed to dispute. Meanwhile, technology and digital media companies are playing another important, if somewhat less lofty, function: providing entertainment, diversion, and a non-disease-spreading social outlet to the increasing number of people electing or forced to stay in. It is, at least, the best of all times to be stuck at home.

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Given that xenophobia during outbreaks is not uncommon, universities should proactively develop policies that support students, faculty, and staff affected by discriminatory behavior both now and in the future. To study or work abroad, members of academia often must travel far from home, adapt to another culture, and overcome a language barrier

Facing prejudice, including discrimination related to COVID-19, may add to feelings of isolation and affect career development, especially for students. Preventive measures by universities to lessen prejudice should include transparency about the disease status, data gathering, and direction about appropriate behavior. University administrators should release reassuring statements about the local COVID-19 situation that supplement the information released by health authorities. Academic administrators should survey students and staff of Asian origin (as well as others if appropriate) to determine whether they have experienced any prejudice related to COVID-19 and whether they expect university authorities to take any additional action (B. A. O'Shea et al. 2019). The administrators should also release statements that explain that in Asia, people wear masks for a variety of reasons, such as to filter polluted air, make fashion or political statements, or provide social indicators that they want to be left alone in public spaces. Typical surgical face masks do not necessarily indicate someone is sick, and as many students are likely aware, they do not provide complete protection against viral infections. Universities can also launch social media campaigns that support Asian and Asian-American students (and other targets) in the form of infographics or videos. Both university administrators and department heads should issue a notice that COVID-19–related prejudice or xenophobic reactions from academic staff and other students will not be tolerated and will be treated in accordance with anti-discrimination laws. Finally, university leaders at all levels should encourage students and academic staff to provide extra support and kindness to Asian and other international students during the ongoing outbreak (L. Asmelash, 2020).

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In the final analysis, without assistance, these workers may face intense economic hardship, fall behind on debt payments, and risk eviction. Simple one-off cash grants to families whose children receive free school meals or who are in receipt of specific family-related social security assistance could also help mitigate impacts on already-struggling families who now in addition to loss of income could face extra burdens, for example, due to school closures. European countries, including Italy, France, and Spain, are considering or already adopted special financial measures to support workers, low-income families, and small businesses

Unconditional tax cuts for employers and employee-side payroll tax cuts are often poorly targeted and may not reach those most in need. For example, expanded social insurance programs like unemployment may permit workers to stay on payroll and be paid when they cannot work because of a COVID-19 downturn.

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L. Asmelash, “UC Berkeley faces backlash after stating ‘xenophobia’ is ‘common’ or ‘normal’ reaction to coronavirus,” CNN (2020).

B. A. O'Shea et al., Soc. Psychol. Pers. Sci., 10.1177/1948550619862319 (2019).

Yan, D. C. Berliner, Asia Pacific Educ. Rev. 12, 173 (2011).

T. Hamamura, P. G. Laird, J. Multicult. Couns. Dev. 42, 205 (2014)

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