There's also a rumor that raw onions and coffee will cure it.
- By Bethany Allen-EbrahimianBethany Allen-Ebrahimian is a Tea Leaf Nation Fellow at Foreign Policy. Before joining Foreign Policy, she lived and worked in China for more than four years, including one year studying at Peking University in Beijing. Allen-Ebrahimian holds an M.A. in East Asian studies from Yale University and a graduate certificate from the Johns Hopkins-Nanjing University Center for Chinese and American Studies.
It’s a horrific epidemic, for sure, but it’s not quite as horrific as some Chinese netizens seem to think. As the Ebola virus continues to infect residents in the West African countries of Liberia, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, and Guinea, some netizens on China’s rumor-prone Internet have deemed it the "zombie disease," out of concerns the disease reanimates victims who appear to have died. The term — which Baike, a Chinese online encyclopedia similar to Wikipedia, even lists as a synonym for Ebola — appears to arise from the virus’ high fatality rate and the particularly gruesome death it can cause, sometimes with bleeding from the eyes, ears, and gums.
The misconception about the zombification of Ebola patients is sufficiently widespread that on August 9, normally staid state news agency Xinhua published an article specifically addressing and debunking the rumor, not to mention the erroneous belief that drinking a mixture of coffee and raw onions can cure the virus. The article describes the rumored risk of Ebola-induced zombiehood: A victim who seems to have already died from Ebola will, "after several hours or days, unexpectedly reawaken, entering into an extremely violent condition in which they bite any moving object, including humans and animals." But not to worry, the article argues with apparent solemnity — many people with Ebola lose a great deal of blood, which can only result in them becoming weaker, not more aggressive. "That kind of thing," the piece concludes, "can only happen in movies."
Hard as it may be to fathom, the article constitutes service journalism for some particularly misinformed Chinese netizens; the idea that Ebola creates zombies, while far from widely accepted, has survived on the Chinese internet since as early as 2010. "I don’t know how reliable it is to call them the living dead, but zombies are no longer far away from us!" wrote one alarmed user on Weibo after posting a report about the spread of Ebola on July 31. That same day, another user demanded an "official response" to the question of "how many people will become living dead." Another user posted, with only faltering doubt, "The virus is real; I’m not sure about the zombies."
It wasn’t just Chinese state media that deemed it necessary formally to dismantle the rumor of zombie apocalypse. At least one medical professional who has directly witnessed the disease took it upon himself to dispel fears by diving directly into the blogosphere. "Today I saw online friends writing that in its late stages, people infected with Ebola are like the ‘living dead,’" one professed member of a Beijing medical team stationed in Guinea wrote from his Weibo account on August 3. Seeking to assuage these concerns, he added that according to his experience with at least one infected person, "there were no signs of aggression."