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Panic in Cambodia: Quelling rumour-induced mass hysteria

Taing Rinith / Khmer Times Share:
Shoppers in a supermarket in Phnom Penh stock up on essentials as panic and anxiety abound amid the COVID-19 pandemic. KT/Pann Rachana

On May 7, 2003, residents took to the streets to fulfil a particular purpose, that is, to search for mung beans. This peculiar goal was backed by the equally strange belief that anyone who has not eaten the said legume by midnight would contract and die of SARS, a viral disease which at the time was spreading quickly around the world and infecting thousands of people.

The belief started from a tall tale. An infant in Siem Reap province was said to have miraculously spoken only a few hours after he was born and told his parents that the only way to prevent infection from the virus was by eating a bowl of mung beans before the day ends. The story spread like wildfire. The price of mung beans in the Kingdom skyrocketed. Not long after, dozens were eating the legume.

By midnight, however, the belief was disproved as no one, whether they ate the vegetable or not, died from the virus.

At first, it seemed like people had learnt their lesson to not believe every rumour they hear. However, a tale of a talking newborn once again emerged 17 years later as the COVID-19 pandemic struck countries worldwide.

The psychiatrist, Dr Ka Sunbaunat, joins Khmer Times’ Cross Talk on March 18, 2020. KT/Tep Sony

As the Kingdom was hit by the first wave of outbreak, talks about a possible food shortage began, causing many to stockpile food and other necessities, such as medical supplies. Groceries and pharmacies were left with empty shelves; with retailers scrambling to keep up with public demand. Amid the confusion, a story about a talking baby got around – this time, eggs were the proclaimed ‘vaccine’. Again, the story was disproved with the event serving as another instance showing the importance of verifying information.

But was the lesson learnt? Perhaps not. Last week, a letter from the National Bank of Cambodia was released, asking commercial banks and microfinance institutions to send the smaller-denominated US dollar banknotes to the central bank as demand for such notes was deemed low. The news set off a frenzy among consumers and retailers who thought the $1, $2 and $5 banknotes would no longer be accepted nor be in circulation in the coming weeks.

As such, reports of local vendors refusing to accept the said notes arose despite repeated calls from both the NBC and Prime Minister Hun Sen that all US currency banknotes will still be considered “legal tender”.

Such tales and frenzy all point to a particular problem in Cambodia – the people’s perennial tendency to be swept up in a rumour-induced panic.

From an outsider’s perspective, the continued belief in tales and superstitions may come off as perplexing, given today’s technologically-advanced society. For a country like Cambodia, however, the tendency to believe in such is the reality.

“Cambodians went through a civil war and a genocidal regime. This made them vulnerable to all sorts of beliefs. Everyone is afraid of death, no one can doubt that. But what they went through was beyond the typical fear of death. They were driven to the depths of terror and despair, unable to control the situation they were in or protect themselves,” said the historian, Professor Sambo Manara. “This panic has been passed down from one generation to another.”

Dr Ka Sunbaunat, psychiatrist and former dean of the University of Medical Sciences, echoed Prof Manara’s assessment.

“Cambodians are panicking now but this is not new to them. Cambodians are prone to falling for baseless rumours and conspiracy theories,” Dr Sunbaunat said, referring to 2003’s mung-bean tale.

“While Cambodians are fast to act on their fear, such fear usually subsides quickly,” he said.

On May 7, 2003, Cambodians rushed to buy mung beans, believing a story about a talking infant in Siem Reap province who told his parents the only way to prevent infection from the SARS virus was to eat a bowl of mung beans before the day ends. knongsrok

Panicking, said Dr Sunbaunat, is not a mental illness per se. Nevertheless, he said those who are exposed to anxiety-inducing situations may develop a tendency to panic.

Like many other problems, the key to quelling mass panic is education. People need to learn how to think critically and properly discern which information to accept or ignore. They must be taught that their beliefs and actions should only be governed by logical, evidence-based and credible information and not hearsays.

Critical thinking should not only be taught in schools. It must also be delivered through campaigns via mainstream and social media. This should include teaching people how to do factual research, learning which news outlets are credible and which are not.

Currently, there are countless outlets out there that perpetuate misinformation and conspiracy theories, in an attempt to increase traffic and sow confusion. Such practice is, without a doubt, unprofessional and unethical and should hence be stopped as soon as possible.

Mass hysteria can cost people much more than they imagine, sometimes even their lives. In the end, it is up to the people to understand their problems and seek the cure themselves.

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