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  • Writer's pictureDurham Pro Bono Blog

What Spreads Faster – Coronavirus or Fake News?

Disclaimer: The views expressed are that of the individual author. All rights are reserved to the original authors of the materials consulted, which are identified in the footnotes below.


The coronavirus (Covid-19) outbreak has undeniably started the year 2020 memorably. The outbreak of the virus is spreading fast, but so is information about it. Information is without a doubt valuable, but when it comes to fake news, not only will it spread unnecessary fear within society, but encourage discrimination.


Currently, with the advancement of social media, information has been moving faster than ever. Though the rapid spread of information can be useful in sharing valuable information and news during the outbreak, it can also be used to spread false information and generate unnecessary fear. Such fear is potentially aggravated by current public distrust of the government in Hong Kong, institutions and the police, which is now at a historic low.[1]. Such distrust can cause people to act impulsively or be placed in a 'fight or flight' response, which is evident from Hong Kongers ‘panic buying’ from supermarkets as a result of online rumors claiming an ‘impending shortage’ of daily necessities.[2]Spreading such information is potentially a violation against the law, as evidenced by the recent arrest of a 37-year-old man in Hong Kong for spreading fake news about widespread illness at his workplace.[3]

Widespread ‘panic-buying’ has put many Hong Kongers in a difficult position, especially vulnerable people like the elderly or disabled, and whoever started these rumors should be held accountable for igniting unnecessary fear during such challenging times.

Speaking to family members of my own, they informed me that purchasing toilet paper and rice has become an impossible mission. Who would have thought in a city as developed as Hong Kong, it has become so difficult for families to complete everyday tasks? This panic-buying has reached the point where full-fledged crimes have occurred as a result: During the shortage, armed robbers stole hundreds of toilet rolls from outside a supermarket.[4]Barrister Albert Luk Wai-hung in Hong Kong has noted that a robbery of this sort may carry a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.[5]

Going back to the issue of spreading fake news, in Hong Kong, under the Summary Offences Ordinance, individuals who spread false information that ignites annoyance, inconvenience and fear with an illegal purpose would be liable to jail time and an HK $1,000 (equivalent of roughly £100) fine.[6]

During sensitive times like the current outbreak, extra weight is placed on everyone’s shoulders with regards to social media etiquette – internet users have a greater responsibility when posting information online. It is important to hold spreaders of fake news legally accountable, as not only are their actions potentially illegal in the first place, it can lead to serious repercussions that may manifest in crime, severe social unrest, and discrimination.

Racial Discrimination

Discrimination has been a byproduct of the mass of false information that was spread on the internet.

Jokes such as 'the virus won’t last long because it's 'Made in China’' definitely should not be taken lightheartedly given their strong racist undertones.[7]

Discrimination has inherently become an involuntary element of the narrative that surrounds the spread of the coronavirus, which has molded into a form of irrational discrimination against Asians in general.

In London, there have been numerous occasions where passengers of the tube have avoided Asian passengers or covered their faces with clothing when other Asian passengers are near.[8]On the popular social media platform, TikTok, racist jokes about the virus have also not been uncommon.[9]

From a legal perspective, protection from racial discrimination is an inherent human right, which can be traced back to Article 14 of the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR), which stipulates the ‘Prohibition of Discrimination’ on the basis of ‘sex, race, colour, language, religion’ and more.[10]

Understandably, during emergencies like this, government authorities will inevitably take strict measures in order to limit the spread of the outbreak, such as travel bans. Of course, travel bans are necessary in order to prevent further spread of the outbreak. However, to what extent are these precautions contributing to discriminatory discourse surrounding the virus?

Considering the ECHR, we can look at this from a human rights angle. By putting up these travel bans, the State risks a breach of Article 14 (Prohibition of discrimination), Article 2 from Protocol No. 4 (Freedom of movement) and potentially a few more rights such as Article 8 (Right to respect for private and family life). Nevertheless, these rights are derogable under Article 15 and thus may face interference by the State during times of emergency subject to satisfying the proportionality and legitimate aim tests. Considering the contagious nature of the virus, it seems that the actions of States to limit travel are rather legitimate and proportional. Regardless of such, these interferences almost place a blanket label on all Asians as people who are at high risk of the virus by limiting travel in and out of many Asian countries.

Thus, is the suffering of discrimination at the expense of maintaining national security necessary in limiting the outbreak?

Is there a better way that government authorities can advertise the travel ban without provoking racist undertones? Naturally, this is a very difficult question to answer, and it is likely that there is no solution, but it is still worth contemplating how various responses to the virus may inadvertently contribute to the spread of racism.

Given the difficult times that many Asians are suffering from, worrying about their families and the outbreak, it is disheartening to have to witness racism rather than support. Fear during such an outbreak is not unusual, but we cannot let irrational fear drive unconscious discrimination. It is during times like these when the global community should be standing together to fight off this virus because, without each other's support, the situation can only become more challenging.


As I conclude this article, I constantly worry about my friends and family back in Hong Kong. However, I am beginning to see more and more people being aware of the kind of information they are receiving and sharing to reduce the spread of fake news and unnecessary fear and racism in society. We cannot let fake news, fear and racism spread faster than the virus. Instead, I hope to see more support and compassion throughout the local community in Hong Kong and all affected countries in general. Nobody wanted this outbreak to occur, and rather than singling out a group to blame and alienate, we should, as an international community, work together to overcome this challenge.

Nicole Chan

Feature Writer



[1] Hong Kong Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies at CUHK, Survey Findings on HKSAR Government’s Popularity in January 2020 (31 January 2020, Communications and Public Relations Office CUHK) <> accessed 14 February 2020

[2] Jasmine Siu, Coronavirus: rice, toilet paper and dried goods fly off shelves as rumours spark panic buying in Hong Kong (6 February 2020, SCMP) <> accessed 14 February 2020

[3] Clifford Lo, Hong Kong man arrested, suspected of spreading fake news on coronavirus(4 February 2020, SCMP) <> accessed 14 February 2020

[4] Chan Ho-him, Two arrested after armed gang makes run for toilet rolls in HK$1,600 heist as coronavirus panic shows no signs of easing (17 February 2020, SCMP) <> accessed 14 February 2020

[5] Ibid

[6] Clifford Lo (n 3)

[7] Kok Xinghui, About that bat soup: Spread of Coronavirus and racism (30 January 2020, Ink Stone News) <> accessed 14 February 2020

[8] SkyNews, Coronavirus: UK sees rise in racism targeting Asian people after outbreak in China (6 February 2020) <> accessed 14 February 2020

[9] Eleanour Cummins, The new Coronavirus is not an excuse to be racist (4 February 2020, The Verge) <> accessed 14 February 2020

[10] Article 14, European Convention of Human Rights

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