Lily Yung, owner of of the Grand Crystal Seafood Restaurant in Burnaby, B.C.’s Crystal Mall, says a 36-character WeChat message tanked her family’s business in less than a day.
The message claimed that one of the restaurant’s employees was hit by the coronavirus known as COVID-19 and officials shut down the restaurant for 14 days. Neither of the claims were true.
“Vancouverites are already scared. Then you send out useless rumours and lies like this?” Yung told CBC News in Cantonese.
In the latest count from the World Health Organization, more than 73,000 people around the world have been diagnosed with COVID-19. Of those cases, 72,528 of them are in China. More than 1,800 people have died, three of them outside of China.
But in Canada, no one has died and only eight people have tested positive for the virus: five in B.C. and three in Ontario.
Health officials have repeatedly said the risk of contracting it in B.C. is very low.
80 per cent decline
Yung said nothing in the rumour was true, but by the time a friend alerted her to the message on Saturday afternoon, it had gone viral.
Business was already down in general because of coronavirus fears, but on Sunday she noticed a sudden drop of about 80 per cent as customers called to cancel pricey banquet reservations.
It got so bad, she asked for special permission to post articles around the mall hoping to fight the lie.
“Very sad, so sad, because staff just lose the jobs,” said Yung.
She says only 10 of her 20 kitchen staff are now working and servers have also had their hours slashed.
Yung doesn’t know why someone may have targeted her business, but it’s a question she hopes to have answered.
Fear possibly driving profit
On Monday, health officials pleaded with the Chinese community to trust official sources.
“Sometimes there are alternative agendas for misinformation,” said federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu at a press conference in Vancouver’s Chinese Cultural Centre.
“People sometimes drive fear because … they can drive a profit.”
Hajdu and her provincial counterpart Adrian Dix, as well as Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart held a roundtable after many in the community said they had lost anywhere from 50 to 70 per cent of their business during the outbreak.
All three levels of government asked the public to look to credible media sources and not to restrict social activities.
Why rumours are rampant
But one University of British Columbia professor who has studied Chinese politics and culture for decades says the message isn’t getting through. Part of it, he says, could be due to a mistrust in government.
“For people who immigrated from mainland China, this could be inherited behaviour because after the Cultural Revolution there have been issues with mistrust with each other, within the community and with the government,” said political science professor Yves Tiberghien.
That mistrust can make social media rumours appear more believable, particularly, he says, when they’re reinforced by family in China surrounded by dire news about COVID-19.
“The stories are very real,” says Tiberghien. “You talk to your mom, mom is stuck in quarantine [in China], you talk to dad and he is stuck and very grumpy … whereas for other Canadians they may not have that connection.”
He says that can make it appear as though Canadian officials are downplaying the situation.
No matter the level of fear, Yung is hoping her story will encourage everyone to think twice before sharing any rumours online.
“It might have been easy to send out, but it ruined a lot of lives,” she said.
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