Coronavirus outbreak: Misinformation, panic run rampant among B.C.'s Chinese-speaking communities

Vancouver's Chinatown | Photo: Rob Kruyt

Despite official pleas for calm, panic among overseas Chinese communities like the one in Metro Vancouver appears to be hitting a fever pitch as the coronavirus outbreak dominates almost every aspect of conversation both in Chinese-language media and online social platforms.

The World Health Organization said Thursday the outbreak “now meets the criteria for a Public Health Emergency of International Concern” and has recommended "intensified support" for affected regions. The WHO also recommended that China “implement a comprehensive risk communication strategy to regularly inform the population on the evolution of the outbreak.”



A scan of the most popular media websites among B.C.’s mainland Chinese community, and  shows that a significant portion if not the vast majority, in some cases of headlines are coronavirus-related. And while most stories are fact-based, a few sensationalistic and potentially misleading headlines have emerged, a trend that reflects the panic in the community, experts say.

One such example is a leading story on Vanpeople, which carries the headline “Air Canada and British Airways suspending all Chinese flights is only a rumour,” despite text of the story actually confirming that British Airways has indeed suspended all flights to China for at least a month. As well, Air Canada has suspended all direct flights between Canada and China.

Observers like UBC Institute of Asian Research director emeritus Yves Tiberghien and non-profit Hua Foundation executive director Kevin Huang noted that the advent of social media platforms like WeChat has had an amplifying effect on the spread of information on the coronavirus outbreak, especially in a situation where official Chinese news channels have been limited so far.

“With the Great Firewall of China, there’s a bunch of rumours and videos circulating about what’s real and what’s not,” Huang said. “The mistrust of government both from Mainland Chinese who are there and from overseas communities all creates a toxic environment where rumours abound.”

Tiberghien noted that, due to Beijing’s efforts to focus government legitimacy on issues like public safety and well-being, the outbreak and its official response have set off strong reactions within China, and that sentiment is being transmitted abroad to overseas communities via WeChat.

“The Chinese government has built its platform on maintaining a good economy, on protecting sovereignty and managing public order,” he said. “That public order includes health, so when Beijing focuses on delivering outcomes, health is a big item. That sensitivity is very high in China, and that spreads through the whole global Chinese community.”

A sampling of a number of Lower Mainland chat groups on WeChat shows that again the coronavirus discussion dominates the conversation. News stories abound regarding the quality of face masks by different brands, new cases of infection and quarantine in countries outside China, as well as supposed tips to stave off the disease.

Some groups have also vented frustration over the inability to find the proper channels to funnel resources into the outbreak epicentre in Wuhan city, as the spectre of the SARS event in 2003 lingers in the background.

“Both SARS and the coronavirus basically come hand-in-hand in any conversation,” Huang said of his contact with various Chinese-speaking communities in Vancouver, which includes not only mainland Chinese but also those from Hong Kong, Taiwan and elsewhere. “I’ve been hearing the language, the tone, the conversation and the worry being so much more amplified in the Chinese-speaking communities than English-speaking ones which gives me quite a bit of concern. We’re all part of the local community, so we need to look at how to alleviate some of those tensions.”

Huang added that he hopes Canadian and B.C. officials will increase the number of Chinese-language channels to provide credible information on the coronavirus outbreak to combat the spread of misinformation here in the Lower Mainland.