** UPDATE BELOW**
The risk of contracting coronavirus in the United States is extraordinarily low. However, the risk of misinformation and xenophobia remain high.
The recent outbreak is actually scary. Coronavirus, or 2019-nCoV, is a respiratory virus with flu-like symptoms that is concentrated in China, and has spread to other countries. It likely originated from live-market wildlife trade in Wuhan. Alarmingly, the virus can also spread person-to-person, having already infected over 28,000 and killed 564 people. The spread triggered an appropriate response from the World Health Organization (WHO), but also international panic.
Here in the United States, citizens are at much greater risk of the flu than coronavirus, but headlines have seized public perceptions. We’ve since seen racist misinformation spread more quickly than the disease. Media “influencers” are fear-mongering tropes and heavily targeting Chinese customs around food. Although it is true that there are loose regulations around wildlife trade in China, we have our own Western issues with food contamination (think romaine lettuce with E. coli or “mad cow” disease). Conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh recently used “ChiComs,” a slur for Chinese-Communists. Even the University of California, Berkeley, posted a misguided infographic normalizing the behaviors of xenophobia. Most prevalently, average citizens are experiencing terrifying confrontations for “coughing while Asian”. The gravity of the situation does not need to result in racism.
The reality is this will likely not be our last, or even worst encounter with infectious disease. Not only are we more connected and populated than ever before, but we are also living in a radically changing climate, making us more vulnerable to many pathways of infection. These variables make it inevitable that this will happen again. What remains unknown is how we will choose to respond. Yes, we will likely respond with urgency, but will we react with humanity? Will we share our knowledge and resources, or will we censor and close our borders? Will we see past our fears and support our neighbors, even with ethnic differences?
Luckily we're still stuck here in the present, and you can help manage the spread of (any) infection while also combating fear and misinformation.
Start by practicing good hand hygiene: wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water after using the bathroom, before eating, after blowing your nose, after touching things in a public space, and after panicking too much about any aspect of life; use hand sanitizer if soap is not available.
Avoid close-contact with people who are visibly sick (literal cough-cough, NOT Asian-looking).
Cover your own sneeze or cough, because that exploding poof of microbes in the air is unpleasant on many levels.
Call your doctor if you start exhibiting signs of the flu. Securing an appointment over the phone reduce spread of infection better than an unexpected office visit.
Last but not least, question the credibility of the information you are seeing, especially if it is from your social media feed. Organizations like the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) or WHO are reliable sources of information on any existing or emerging diseases.
UPDATE 27OCT'20: Hey folks. I'm wholly aware of how outdated this post is. I had hope the numbers would not be so staggeringly different and that our response would be more science-based, but this is where we are. I'll add my 2 cents in a following post.