Businesses and restaurants in Boston’s Chinatown have seen a sharp decline in customers. Local retailers have reported widespread shortages of face masks. On WeChat, the popular Chinese messaging app, an unfounded rumor has been circulating that the University of Massachusetts Boston student infected with the new coronavirus had visited a local hotpot restaurant before isolating himself at home.
Rumors and misinformation, much of it fueled by social media, have whipped up alarm about the virus, here and abroad. Now city officials are stepping up their efforts to quell the tide of fear and misinformation.
On Thursday, Mayor Martin J. Walsh’s Office of Economic Development launched a social media campaign to encourage residents and tourists to patronize Chinatown’s small businesses and post photos of themselves online with the hashtag #LoveBostonChinatown. To demonstrate their support of struggling Chinese restaurants, City Councilor Michelle Wu and Quincy City Council President Nina Liang have organized a dim sum brunch at China Pearl Restaurant in Chinatown on Saturday morning, along with Boston councilors Ed Flynn, Annissa Essaibi George, and Kenzie Bok. Flynn, who represents Chinatown, has started making the rounds at senior housing centers to provide accurate information about the virus.
“We’re hearing a lot of rumors and we’re hearing a lot of negative comments about the Chinese community, but that’s not what your city is about,” Flynn told a group of seniors at Quincy Tower, an affordable housing complex for the elderly in Chinatown. “It’s about empathy and working together as a city.”
The coronavirus, dubbed Covid-19, has sickened more than 60,000 people worldwide, the vast majority of them in China. Earlier this week, the epidemic was believed to have slowed. But on Thursday, the number of cases surged as Chinese officials expanded the diagnostic criteria for identifying the virus, bringing the total number of cases in China to 59,804. The death toll from the outbreak in China jumped to 1,367. The United States has just 15 confirmed cases of the coronavirus, including the UMass student who recently traveled to Wuhan, the Chinese city where the virus originated. According to Chinese health officials, seniors have been hit hardest by the virus.
Karen Chen, executive director of the Chinatown-based Chinese Progressive Association, said a common misconception is that more people in Boston are infected than have been reported.
“Based on the medical professionals, the risk [of contracting the coronavirus] is low in comparison to other things like the flu,” Chen said. “I think that people are overly concerned.”
Dr. Jennifer Lo, medical director of the Boston Public Health Commission, addressed misconceptions about the virus at a city-run community meeting at Chinatown’s Josiah Quincy Elementary School last week. The event drew dozens of people, many of them elderly, who expressed concerns about the UMass student and the passengers he may have had contact with during his flight back to Boston. Lo emphasized that the risk to the general public for contracting the virus “is very low.” She also said she could not share how many people in Boston are currently self-isolating after traveling to China.
At Quincy Tower, Wah Mah, 89, helped himself to an egg tart and a cup of coffee, a treat for a man who has avoided going outside for fear of getting sick.
As a cancer survivor, Mah explained in Cantonese through an interpreter on Tuesday, catching the new virus isn’t worth the risk. Since news broke of Massachusetts’ first case on Feb. 1, he said, he has worried that more people in Boston would be infected.
Mah’s fears were assuaged — at least temporarily — after hearing from Flynn and his policy director and translator, Sophia Wang. Flynn lugged two takeout boxes of Dunkin’ coffee into Quincy Tower’s community room, while Wang followed with Hong Kong-style pastries.
"Because of the high-tech technology right now, like WeChat and everything, [our senior clients] receive a lot of information, but whether that is correct or incorrect, they receive it,” said Megan Cheung, associate and clinical director of the Greater Boston Chinese Golden Age Center in Chinatown. "We want to make sure they understand what’s going on here so they don’t have to be panicked.”
Shou Qiang Mei, 90, a Quincy Tower resident, said he’s not too concerned about the virus, but his children are. Speaking through an interpreter, he said his children, most of whom live in the Chinese province of Guangdong, have warned him against visiting public spaces. He noted that the community room, where residents play cards and mah-jongg, has been unusually empty since news of the outbreak came to light.
“There’s a lot of WeChat stories about this and that, but ... the sources are not verified,” Mei said. But, he added, he and others are still “taking preventive measures, just in case."