In Europe, fear spreads faster than the coronavirus itself

A view of the house where five British nationals including a child, who have been diagnosed with the coronavirus, were staying at the French Alpine resort of Les Contamines-Montjoie, France.
A view of the house where five British nationals including a child, who have been diagnosed with the coronavirus, were staying at the French Alpine resort of Les Contamines-Montjoie, France.PHOTO: REUTERS

LONDON (NYTIMES) - A British man who tested positive for coronavirus was branded a "super spreader", his every movement detailed by the local media.

Business has plummeted in a French ski resort identified as the scene of several transmissions of the virus.

And after some employees of a German car company were diagnosed with the virus, the children of other workers were turned away from schools, despite negative test results.

With 42 confirmed cases across the continent, the coronavirus outbreak is far less serious in Europe than it is in China, where more than 2,000 people have died and the fight to contain the virus has taken on the trappings of a wartime campaign.

But fear itself is proving contagious. And with that fear comes a new social stigma for people and places that have been associated with the outbreak.

Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organisation, warned on Saturday (Feb 15) of the dangers of letting fear outpace facts.

"We must be guided by solidarity, not stigma," Dr Tedros said in a speech at the Munich Security Conference, adding that fear could hamper global efforts to combat the virus.

"The greatest enemy we face is not the virus itself; it's the stigma that turns us against each other."

In the United States and elsewhere, people of Asian heritage have faced intense public scrutiny over their health. In Europe, the handful of people confirmed to have been infected have also found themselves in the public glare.

In Britain, where there are nine confirmed cases, news outlets swiftly labelled a businessman at the centre of a cluster of transmissions at a French ski chalet a "super spreader" even before the man returned to Britain and tested positive for the virus.

The businessman, Mr Steve Walsh, later came forward to say that he did not know he had contracted coronavirus when he joined friends in France after a business trip to Singapore.

 
 
 
 

He said he had contacted health authorities as soon as he discovered that had been exposed to the virus and that he had been in isolation at a hospital after testing positive.

When Mr Walsh's name and photograph were released, broadcasters breathlessly speculated about his movements.

Others mapped his "trail", while some residents of Brighton and Hove, where Nr Walsh lives, wondered if it was safe to go outside.

Only five cases have been confirmed in the area.

Mr Peter Kyle, a lawmaker who represents the area, said that the fear around the virus was understandable, particularly as the outbreak in China grows. But he said the use of the term "super spreader" was irresponsible.

"The connotation of that term is that he was proactively passing it, that he was willingly transmitting it," Mr Kyle said. "Whereas we know for a fact that the moment he became symptomatic, he did everything by the book."

Part of the problem, Mr Kyle said, is that people try to reconcile what is happening in China - where more than 70,000 people have tested positive for the virus and tens of millions have essentially been on lockdown for weeks - with what they are seeing nearer to home.

Mr Kyle said that because British authorities had not articulated the response strategy clearly to the public, "people are filling in the gaps themselves", driven in part by misinformation online.

He said that some constituents had asked him to confirm the identities of coronavirus patients and provide a detailed account of where they had been before they went into isolation.

"It just shows there is misunderstanding," he said.

The anxiety has also affected local businesses, like The Grenadier, a pub in Hove where health authorities determined Mr Walsh had spent time before he learned he had the virus.

An employee confirmed by phone that the restaurant had been inundated with calls about the coronavirus. In an effort to dispel rumor, the staff posted a statement on Facebook: "You are not in any risk by coming into the pub."

A spokesman for the British Department of Health and Social Care cautioned against using the virus as an excuse to stigmatise groups and individuals.

The health department also emphasised that doctors did not discharge patients believed to represent any threat to public health.

The French Alpine ski village of Les Contamines-Montjoie has also had to deal with the fears of a coronavirus outbreak. At least six British citizens who stayed in a chalet in the village, including a 9-year-old boy, tested positive for the virus and are still in France.

"We were all spooked," said Ms Mélanie Boidard, 34, a resident of Les Contamines-Montjoie. "Let's not pretend otherwise."

 
 
 

No new cases have been confirmed in the village since the initial cluster, but fears persist. The village of 1,200 usually increases more than tenfold this time of year with the influx of tourists, many of them Britons, coming to the ski resort. But businesses have suffered from rumours of coronavirus contamination.

Mr Philippe Gerault, 65, who runs a ski club in Les Contamines-Montjoie, said about a dozen British clients had cancelled reservations for this week.

"It's panic," said Mr Eric Paris, the only pharmacist in the village.

Mr Paris said he had received 300 to 400 calls from people asking for information about the coronavirus.

"People call me and ask 'I'm coming next week, should I cancel my trip?' " he said. "It's absolutely ridiculous."

Of the 16 confirmed coronavirus cases in Germany, 14 are linked to car parts manufacturer Webasto, which reopened its headquarters in Stockdorf last week.

A Chinese employee of the company who is based in Shanghai had visited the Bavarian headquarters for meetings in mid-January.

The employee's parents had visited her from Wuhan province, the centre of the epidemic, just before she travelled to Germany, and she began showing symptoms on her return flight to China.

That same evening, a German employee became ill and was the first German person diagnosed with the coronavirus.

The next day, with three infections reported, the company closed its headquarters - where about 1,000 managers, designers and engineers work - for two weeks in an effort to stop the virus from spreading further.

 

But outsiders avoided the village, associating it with the coronavirus, local leaders said.

Mr Ludwig Harter, who runs a local cafe, says his business was down 50 per cent since news of the local outbreak made national headlines.

"It's everyone - older ladies and gentlemen, young mothers - many of our customers stopped coming," Mr Harter said.

Employees of Webasto said that schools and day care centres were reluctant to take their children, according to Ms Nadine Schian, a spokeswoman for the company.

Others reported that their partners had to be tested for the virus before they could go to work.

In one widely reported case, a man who brought his car to his regular mechanic was refused service because he worked for Webasto.

"It's a small village," Ms Schian said. "Everyone knows everyone."