In one post, a fake security alert said two Ryerson University students had tested positive for coronavirus.
In a viral WhatsApp message, a breathless warning not to visit a busy Markham mall — an employee there had come down with the illness, it said.
In another, an alert with a face mask emojji that claimed a coronavirus patient had visited a local supermarket.
None of it true.
As rumours and hoaxes about the global outbreak flood social media, officials are asking GTA residents to take a moment; don’t trust everything you see, rely on official sources and think of who you might be hurting when you amplify unverified information.
Much of it is already affecting the region’s Chinese communities, said Avvy Go, the director of the Chinese and Southeast Asian Legal Clinic, one of several local organizations that on Tuesday released a joint statement denouncing discrimination and xenophobia in the wake of the global outbreak.
“The coronavirus is not isolated to people of one nationality or race,” the statement read. “This is a world health issue.”
The city, Go said, seems to have not learned the lessons of SARS. During that 2003 outbreak, which infected thousands worldwide and killed 44 people in Canada, the region’s Chinese businesses suffered, employees lost their jobs and tenants were kicked out by their landlords.
Go said she’s worried that might be happening again. “My fear is that even if it is just two to three more cases — the fear is so irrational and it’s fuelled by the racism that already exists — that it will still affect people of Chinese descent regardless.”
Hoaxes happened before Facebook and WhatsApp — for example, in 2003 an email falsely linking a Scarborough Chinese restaurant to SARS managed to slow business to a crawl, the Star reported — but “there’s no filter” for people to spread at-times racist fear on social media, Go said, adding that anyone can post “all kinds of unscientific nonsense, who to avoid, where to avoid,” without consequence.
“Just like we have a plan to deal with the outbreak we should have a plan in place to deal with the outbreak of racism that goes with the virus,” she said.
Mathieu Poirier, assistant professor of social epidemiology at York University, said that a xenophobic or racist response is common following disease outbreaks.
“The epidemic of fear that follows the disease is just as dangerous,” he said. Most dangerous, Poirier notes, is if people begin to fear seeking treatment due to the stigma attached to being ill. If people fear retribution against their family or community, he said, cases can go undetected and untreated.
Dr. Eileen de Villa, Toronto’s medical officer of health, said officials understand there is a “certain amount of fear and anxiety” around the new virus, but it is “worsened by the spread of disinformation.”
Social media has “great power to spread information” but “it has great power to spread disinformation as well,” she added, noting that people have begun showing up to emergency rooms or other health care settings with no symptoms, exposure or relevant travel history.
As the news unfolds, De Villa urged people to consult credible sources of information, such as Toronto Public Health’s own website.
So far, Toronto health officials have confirmed two presumptive cases of the illness, a husband and wife who recently returned from Wuhan, China, where the outbreak began. Both individuals have been isolated: one is stable in hospital, the other is well and has been in self-isolation, officials said.
In a statement, de Villa said Toronto Public Health has contacted most people the couple were in contact with since returning to the GTA, saying that progress with this “demonstrates that the system is working well.”
TPH had also set up a hotline for people who travelled on China Southern Airlines flight CZ311, which arrived in Toronto from Guangzhou on Jan. 22. People who were on that flight can call 416-338-7600 with any questions.
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Ontario health officials said they are waiting on test results for another 11 people who recently travelled to affected areas in China.
In China, the number of confirmed cases jumped Monday, passing 4,500 infections with more than 100 deaths. The disease has been confirmed in at least 18 other countries, but experts say it has so far not been seen to widely spread person to person outside China.
Meanwhile, de Villa emphasizes that the risk to Toronto residents remains low.
“I want to remind residents that the best way to prevent infection is to avoid being exposed to this virus with prevention measures including wash your hands frequently, covering your cough or sneeze and staying home if you are ill,” she said in a statement Tuesday.
Doctors and researchers are still looking into the virus’s origins, how it reached humans, is transferred and what can be done to eradicate it, de Villa said.
“Those are the kinds of areas where there’s some uncertainty and I think when there is some uncertainty, there is often fear and anxiety associated with that,” she said. “That’s where you see some misinformation.”
There has been no shortage of misinformation in the GTA so far:
Markham’s Markville mall, a short distance north of Toronto, has been the centre of viral WhatsApp messages about an outbreak of coronavirus at a jewelry store.
Another message warned customers to stay away from multiple T&T Supermarkets, which sell wide selections of Asian foods.
And a series of hoax messages have targeted GTA universities.
There is absolutely no public health reason to be concerned about any of these places, de Villa said.
Tuesday afternoon, employees at T&T’s Markham location, the subject of one false social media post, told the Star no one had fallen ill at the store.
In the Markville Mall, employees at several businesses said they were aware a nearby store had been targeted in online rumours, and some said they were worried speculation might keep customers away. Meanwhile, most shoppers the Star spoke to were unaware that rumours had been circulating about the novel coronavirus at all.
Janine Ramparas, a spokesperson for Markville’s parent company Cadillac Fairview, told the Star in an email she’s aware “there are a few rumours circulating at the (shopping) centre, none of which have been validated.”
“That said, we will continue to be vigilant and monitor.”
At the mall’s Shopper’s Drug Mart, a display of hand sanitizer was down to just a few bottles; an employee told the Star the location had been out of face masks since the weekend.
At the Walmart, a sign advised that face masks were sold out and to check back at a later date.