In China, where a zero-tolerance approach is still being deployed against Covid-19, infection with the virus can mean not just physical suffering but also mental pain.
A 38-year-old father surnamed Lin and his family were among the first patients in a recent outbreak in southeastern China and were subjected to abuse.
The man, who in August travelled back from Singapore where he worked and was suspected to be patient zero in the latest outbreak in Fujian province in September, had to plead for mercy on social media after his identity was published and he was bullied online.
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“My whole family got cyberbullied. We received abuse and curses from many people, which caused insuppressible terror and mental damage. We can’t live like normal people any more,” Lin wrote in a Weibo post on September 17, a week after he and his son tested positive for the coronavirus.
People online said he should not have returned to China. They also claimed he did not isolate himself strictly on arrival, and caused an outbreak that led to large-scale testing and lockdowns in the province, a method China typically uses to quash the virus.
But in fact, upon arriving in China, Lin went through 21 days of institutional isolation, during which nine nucleic acid tests and three antibody tests were conducted.
“Because of you, all people in Fujian are taking nucleic acid tests every day. We can’t go to work or go to school or even have a good dinner. Who should we blame if not you?” one person posted on Weibo.
Lin was just one of the many Covid-19 patients in China who have fallen victim to online bullying after the leaking of their private data during the government’s epidemiological investigation.
While local governments differ in how much detail of a confirmed case is published to track down further cases, it’s common for the gender, age, profession and places they visited in the past two weeks to be published.
In some cases like Lin’s, more of the patient’s information, such as his address and phone number, was made public online either because government workers shared it on social media or web users doxxed him using information published by authorities.
One of the first cases in an ongoing outbreak in northeastern China’s Harbin city was also harshly attacked for his decision to go back home after local authorities said that he had just returned from the Philippines and played a role-playing murder mystery game with another confirmed case.
In August, a patient in Beijing, a professor from the Central Academy of Fine Arts, was doxxed and found himself the subject of a rumour that he was having an affair on a trip during which he contracted the coronavirus.
Behind the rampant cyberbullying of these patients is the public’s lack of awareness of the law and growing hostility in the Chinese online community, said Professor Zhu Wei, an expert on internet governance at the China University of Political Science and Law.
“Some people may seem malicious when making those false and harmful remarks, but most of them, I believe, said mean words or spread the patient’s personal data with misplaced good intentions,” he said. “They thought it was helping control the pandemic, or simply wanted to show off that they had access to contact tracing data.”
Existing laws in China already include a range of civil and criminal penalties for privacy breaches. People found guilty of releasing personal details - for example, someone‘s address or credit records - can be fined or jailed for up to three years.
A law designed to protect online user data privacy is also to take effect from November. The Personal Information Protection Law prescribes that handling of personal information must have a clear and reasonable purpose and shall be limited to the “minimum scope necessary to achieve the goals of handling” data.
But so far, few have been really penalised for infringing the privacy of Covid-19 patients or verbally abusing them.
“The reality now is that we’re not punishing anyone because too many people are doing it. This is wrong. Anyone should be held responsible when he infringes other people’s rights,” Zhu said.
“Netizens have also grown more hostile, mainly because of a twisted fandom culture in recent years, where fans of different idols attacked each other with extreme language,” he added.
Huang Jing, a veteran psychotherapist based in Shanghai, said the widespread online violence against Covid-19 patients can cause significant psychological problems.
“The two most likely results are depression and anxiety. The worst possibility is that some might commit suicide, as they find themselves being ostracised by society,” she said.
The prevalence of anxiety and depression already increased among the general public since Covid-19 became a pandemic, according to a study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.
From March 2020 onwards, the number of people who suffered anxiety and depression doubled in some countries including the US and the UK, it said in a study published in May.
Calling it “the carnival of anger and the party of anxiety”, Huang said there would be less bullying in China’s cyberspace when its internet population as a whole got better education. “When someone has a better ability in understanding and cognisance, he can control his emotions better,” she noted.
If you are having suicidal thoughts, or you know someone who is, help is available. For Hong Kong, dial +852 2896 0000 for The Samaritans or +852 2382 0000 for Suicide Prevention Services. In the US, call The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline on +1 800 273 8255. For a list of other nations’ helplines, see this page
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