February 6, 2020

DERY | Don’t Let the Coronavirus Paranoia Win

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As I returned to campus with open arms last month, ready to embrace the Spring semester, Cornell failed to return the love. And it didn’t take long for me to come down with a classic case of the college sniffles. It is what it is. But given the recent coronavirus outbreak, this time around, any flicker of symptoms prompted my inner hypochondriac to schedule self-check-ups on WebMD.

But paranoia reached new highs this week, when an email from the University informed us of the possibility that one of our own has been infected. Waiting in line at Rose’s dining hall when I refreshed my inbox that Monday night, I was fully ready to indulge in warm cookies. Instead, once the news broke, I could only think about the chance that the infected student had just used the fork I held in my hand, had just sat in the very seats I wrapped my coat around, had just interacted with my classmates  … with me. The absence of a diagnosis and the science behind viral infection spread didn’t matter: My mind had already switched into self-preservation mode. Faced with the possibility of the epidemic at our doorstep, my actions only further a campus atmosphere of self-preservation, counterproductive to the support network we should be promoting as a community. And the explosion of incoherent whispers and murmurs around me that night indicate I am not the only culprit. Stirring in my panicked thoughts, I finished my cookies, got seconds, thought about thirds, then left.

Cornellians’ real test in the face of coronavirus is not solely predicated upon how effectively we can avoid it, but rather how unified we stand alongside fellow peers who may personally know victims — or perhaps entire communities — who are now at risk. Instead of convincing ourselves through panic and paranoia that our multinational campus has doomed our chances of immunity, we should focus our energies on the thousands of victims who are truly on the front lines of this epidemic.

So, if we find ourselves guilty of contributing to sentiments urging everyone to wear face masks, red-flagging every audible cough or sneeze in the library or even sarcastically commenting that we can “never be too cautious,” we ultimately fail in immunizing ourselves to internal division. It is during these moments when I can’t help but realize that many Cornellians see our campus as a Petri dish ripe for infection rather than a community where they can look to for support. Perhaps our willingness to abandon a welcoming attitude and instead see each other as health risks is indicative of an unfortunate shallowness that underlies our school spirit.

And if only to cause more stress and panic, recent diagnoses of students at Arizona State and the University of Massachusetts offer little hope; within a week, our eyes have nervously turned from Wuhan to other colleges and, now, to our own campus. But we must remember this isn’t the first time our campus has been quick to panic in the face of health risks.

In 2012, study of 52 Cornell students, psychologists David Pizzaro and Erik Helzer found that those who were questioned about their political and moral beliefs near a hand sanitizer dispenser rated themselves as more conservative as compared to Cornellians who were questioned in the absence of one. On our very campus, being even subtly reminded of disease and infection — let alone facing a global health crisis — is already prone to skewing our values.

Similar sentiments have been echoed around the country.  A few years after this survey on our campus, NPR reported that 77 percent of Americans in general would support a travel ban in response to the international Ebola outbreak — despite the policy’s history of failure. Clearly, in the face of such crises, panic over staying healthy undermines the values we hold during times of tranquility; a paranoia potent enough to permeate any facemask infects our campus culture.

Though we should be cautious and practice basic sanitary measures, feeling the need to avoid public contact or wear protective gear can further panic our community. In fact, Cornell’s own Prof. Gary Whittaker, microbiology and immunology, confirms that typical face-masks are not effective in preventing disease spread and that only heavy-duty masks can offer protection — the same masks that, as infectious disease specialist Dr. William Schaffner attests, require annual training to use and can only be endured for roughly 30 minutes at a time. In other words, Cornell, the only guarantee of health would be to quarantine ourselves in our dorms. Yet, this every-man-for-himself mentality is at the very core of trading solidarity in for self-comfort.

So although I take no issue with facemasks or any other personal choice for one’s peace of mind, we must avoid investing more attention into protecting ourselves from — rather than supporting — each other. I think it’s safe to say we’ve all gotten a little sick of instinctively fearing any living soul on this campus that sneezes.


Roei Dery is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at
[email protected]. The Dery Bar runs every other Thursday this semester.