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NCoV and the potential for mass hysteria 

By: Jobers Reynes Bersales, SARS February 10,2020 - 08:26 AM

 

Are we on the verge of a mass hysteria due to the onslaught of the novel coronavirus (NCoV) in China? Not yet. The possibility of that happening is very low right now. But one must be prepared for the possibility, given the pervasiveness of social media.

Social media is one glaring difference between the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) of 2001 and the novel coronavirus. Back in 2001, I doubt if a hundred thousand Filipinos had a social media account. Now millions of Filipinos log on to Facebook, Instagram and Twitter daily and even into the wee hours of dawn, sharing information on the Internt. 

And not all of them share correct information. 

We are certainly lucky that no charlatan has as yet come out linking nCoV to the end of the world, complete with a purported apparition from some supposed heavenly being. 

The mass hysteria that gripped Cebu after the 1991 flood that killed so many in Ormoc immediately comes to mind. The only problem is that nCoV, fortunately, is not a local phenomenon and therefore the local symbolisms that were harnessed and given meaning by Cebuanos in that mass hysteria of 1991 will not be repeated this time (fingers crossed).

In 1996 I co-authored a scholarly paper about that mass hysteria together with my colleague Dr. Fiscalina Nolasco which we titled, “Higugmaa Ang Diyos, Kahadloki ang Diyos (Love God, Fear God): Post-Ormoc Disaster Mass Hysteria in an Urban Center” that I think can be accessed online.

Anyway, the hysteria began on the evening of November 16, 1991, when Nash Aliño, host of the radio program Pulso sa Katilingban aired over DyHP Radio Mindanao Network, read a letter that warned of a catastrophe worse than what befell Ormoc City over two weeks prior. That is, unless people turned to God and posted signs that said, “Higugmaa ang Diyos, Kahdloki ang Diyos.”

I already wrote about this on a previous column over a decade or so, but it is good to refresh our memory here to arm us against the possibility of such a phenomenon. The letter sender, later identified as one Edgar Zamora, stated that one day he was sitting on one of the benches at Plaza Independencia reading a newspaper while eating peanuts amid a slight drizzle when a young boy with dirty or tattered clothes sat beside him. He at first did not mind the boy until the latter asked for some of his peanuts. 

As he gave him some peanuts, he noticed that the boy was not even pelted by the rain, despite the slight drizzle. While eating the nuts, the boy vividly described how the people of Ormoc would be buried alive in mud and water. It was only later after the Ormoc Tragedy had happened, that this certain Zamora realized that the boy had given him a prophecy.

And so the story goes that days after the tragedy, this Zamora (who, by the way, was never ever located nor ascertained to be a real person by the authorities) once again sat on a bench at the park and once again the boy also sat beside him. This time, the boy predicted that the same calamity would befall Cebu City but three times that of Ormoc as punishment for the city’s participation in the relief efforts because it had helped “rescue Ormoc from the punishment of God” according to a news report. The only way for Cebuanos to be spared of the coming calamity, however, was for residents to post signs that stated the aforesaid phrase.

The result? Signs sprouted all over Cebu, church attendance surged. Even candles were sold by the hundreds. Assurances from the Cebu City Government, the Archdiocese of Cebu and even the Kapisanan ng Mga Brodkaster ng Pilipinas that the letter was a fake were lost on deaf ears. The difficulty of convincing the public was compounded when an environmentalist came out to state that due to Cebu’s very low forest cover, the possibility of a flash flood could not be discounted. 

Cebuano Catholics believed that the boy was the Santo Niño in the flesh, warning the city of a coming cleansing a la “end times” in the manner of the Revelation in the Bible. I am pretty certain a large swathe of Cebuano Catholics was gripped with fear and scared to face the judgment of God during those weeks.

How did the hysteria die down? As with all other false prophecies, the passage of time, with nothing happening, killed it. Soon people started coming out of their scare cocoons and began to imagine the possibility that they had all been duped.

Fast forward to the present and imagine if someone made such claims on Facebook. Well, maybe because of that mass hysteria of 1991 it is now harder to believe such not-so-innocent pranks gone viral, literally. But one must always be on guard: during the 1991 event, three moons supposedly appeared over Argao and a strange fish also washed up somewhere in Minglanilla.

With the nCov creeping upon us, all we need is a post about a little boy, three moons, a strange fish and divine punishment to drive us all scared crazy or crazy scared (whatever!) over again. /dbs

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