Plaguespotting the Coronavirus outbreak shows how little we have really progressed

Plaguespotting the Coronavirus outbreak shows how little we have really progressed

by Jonathan Stanley
article from Wednesday 12, February, 2020

ATTITUDES TO HIV have changed markedly through the decades. We can believe this is part of some greater social progress and of course this thought is comforting. We could instead believe it is not our attitudes but more the preventability and treatability of the infection that has drowned out alarmists and given way to a more nuanced and reasoned discourse.

Within the last few weeks I have had my suspicions confirmed that it is the latter.

Yesterday's publication of the identity of a "suspected superspreader" of Coronavirus (2019nCoV / Wuhan virus) and the revelation he was identified through contact tracing, blew a hole in my confidence of how we deal with viral infections that threaten public health. It was published by Sky News and has been covered by other broadcasters but I refuse to link to it.

It took me back to the days even before Trainspotting and Princess Diana shaking the hand of an AIDS patient. We have returned to the dark days of Plaguespotting. That is the only word I can think of to describe it accurately and have made it up for the purpose of starting a new discourse.

Naming and shaming in public, employer demands to know even if people had been tested for HIV, alarmism over how infections were contracted, obsession with the concept of Patient Zero, stigmatisation of naive prolific spreaders was supposed to have been confined to the 1980s and 90s. Films such as Philedelphia and Trainspotting for a while confined sensationalism to day-time B movies and video games.

The Chinese state is a closed, authoritarian, dishonest disgrace. We are not. We have I believe the duty to reject the future simply as a copy of the past because the past is known and documented and debated through our open society. In free societies Kierkegaard rules, the future cannot be a repeat of the known past.

Paucity of knowledge is not an excuse for paucity of principle and here is the rub of the article. Journalists, academics, politicians, thinktankies, charities will do well to come together to discuss and formulate a basic toolkit if not a continuous campaign to highlight the wrongs and dangers of plaguespotting. It is not enough to call it ignorance or hysterical. It is harmful in a digital age where our sources of information are legion and superfast.

I do not want to see parents protesting outside a school on the rumour of some "plaguechild" infecting their school. This did happen with HIV in 1980s and it traumatised a generation. Ignorance saw a cohort of young, bright, hopeful men cut down like hay before the scythe. Doctors and nurses watched patients the age of their own children crumble to dust before them in clinics.

The psychological and cultural impact of a viral epidemic is not my natural first line of inquiry as a medic but we are entering the early days of an older decade and we have a choice about how and why we should head it off.

I am happy to work with all interested parties above to encourage and guide reporting of viral outbreaks as part of our civil defence and not instead as a contribution to its compromise. 

We can start this now. Reply to this article's tweet with an email and we can start the ball rolling. #plaguespotting

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