Making my way into London, I collected a copy of the Evening Standard. The headline read, “Killer virus: two cases in Britain”. The article stated that the mortality rates of Coronavirus are only 2% and the survival rate is as high as 98%. The coverage of the recent outbreak of the virus in the UK has been blown out of proportion by many tabloid papers.
This sensationalism evoked by headlines is misleading. Branding the virus as “Killer” when no one in Britain has died from it is irresponsible and will only cause public hysteria. The virus is evidently a cause for concern, but the coverage of Coronavirus is tainted by a lack of perspective.
The death of 259 people living in China is undeniably devastating, however, seasonal flu (in which the strain cannot be predicted, year to year) kills in the region of 291,000-646,000 people annually. Evidently, awareness of the disease and symptoms is crucial for prevention but opting for hyperbolic headlines with a lack of perspective is unproductive.
History tells us that hysteria never helps to quell the spread of disease. During outbreaks of Plague in London in 1593 and 1636, foreigners were victimised as the cause of disease and were labelled as ‘aliens.’
Fearing certain social groups was a common occurrence in Britain throughout the medieval and early-modern period, which helped fuel a stigma towards foreigners. Today, a new virus breaks out in China, with a mortality rate of 2-4%, and people cannot even share a tube carriage without jumping when a Chinese person sneezes.
During outbreaks of Plague in Tudor and Stuart Britain, social disorder was a main influence on government policy towards disease control. People began to reduce their Church attendance due to fear of catching the disease, and the government tried to implement fines for anti-social behaviour during outbreaks.
Historically, fear and hysteria are seen as anti-progressive behaviours towards disease. This should serve as a reminder for us today. People had more to fear during an era where there were no public hospitals, far worse sanitation conditions and unsophisticated medical knowledge. We should count ourselves lucky that we are so much better equipped.
Coronavirus is a respiratory illness that has never been seen in humans. It emerged in the Wuhan and Hubei Province in China and has already infected an estimated 6,000 people and has spread to 15 other countries. In the UK, Chief Medical Officers have stated the risk to the general public is low – despite what tabloid headlines suggest.
We should be thinking of people in Wuhan and those at a much higher risk, who cannot escape the infected areas, and we should be pooling our resources to help those in countries which do not have established medical centres and hospitals. Frankly, worrying about catching the disease is a privilege, when the poorest individuals in infected countries are the most vulnerable to catching the disease and dying from it. Our worries are their very real realities.
Disease hysteria only breeds irrationality, rumours, and assumptions. The media have a direct role and responsibility in all of this. This hysteria is dangerous due to the creation of blame and reincarnation of historic stereotypes. Discriminatory assumptions relating to Chinese people as dirty, eating bats and practicing traditional medicines have increased, due to hysteria influenced by the media.
The Daily Mail was involved in the spreading of a video of a woman eating a bat – which played on these Asian stereotypes. “Chinese food vendors’ are STILL selling live wild animals including rats, badgers and snakes” is another example of such harmful stereotypes, especially since the cause of the virus hasn’t been confirmed yet.
In an article for The Guardian, Sam Phan argued, “stereotypes are spreading as quickly as the virus. On the bus, in the street, people have started treating us as if we’re infected.”
Social fear and hysteria, shaped by tabloid media coverage, only creates more damage. The media have a responsibility in how they publish and present information about Coronavirus.
Instead of contributing to the creation of a social pandemic surrounding the virus, they should aim to solely inform, present the facts, and stray away from hyperbolic language which only adds fuel to the fire. Contagion from this virus is an inescapable reality for some but merely a feeling of fear for others.
The virus is worrying, but instead of increasing fear, misinformation and hyperbolic discourse, tabloids and other media establishments should be reporting the bare necessities. They have a responsibility to above all, present the facts that are within the public interest, not taint them with hyper-hysterical discourse.