Media

Coronavirus: Death by Kowtow

A community worker measures the body temperature of a man as police officers inspect his documents at a checkpoint set up at an entrance to a street in Wuhan, Hubei Province, China February 20, 2020. (China Daily via Reuters)
Western reporters have been preoccupied with glib stories about how the only danger was the spread of anti-Chinese sentiment.

The Wuhan virus is now having a major impact on the global economy and threatens to become a major global health crisis. Already the focus is shifting to Italy, Iran, and South Korea, where clusters of coronavirus have been found. Each of these countries should be more forthcoming and honest than the Chinese government. Some towns in the Lombardy region of Italy are under a form of quarantine and restriction that residents think of as martial law. Governments of Europe are already advising their people not to travel to Milan and other major Italian cities. Major restrictions on internal travel in Korea have already been implemented. In Iran, social, cultural, and religious centers were closed across 14 provinces. So far the mortality rates remain low. As of this writing, South Korea reports 602 cases and six deaths. Italy has reported 152 cases with three deaths. Iran has confirmed 43 cases and eight fatalities.

Maybe something about this pattern of facts infuriates you, as it does me. Maybe, like me, you’ve been alarmed by the social-media snippets coming out of China. Especially when they contrast with everything the major bodies governing public health and the media have told you. Maybe you, like me, read lots of reports saying that fears of coronavirus as a health crisis or economic one were being overblown. But then you also noticed that facemasks were sold out everywhere, that they’ve been sold out for weeks. Something wasn’t adding up. And now, maybe like me, you’re furious at much of the media and the World Health Organization.

The media’s response to coronavirus was also almost a form of malpractice. While readers may have been searching out samizdat videos from China to try to make sense of the phenomenon, American reporters were treating their audiences to many, many, many articles about anti-Chinese or anti-Asian sentiments. Entire “epidemics” of racism were diagnosed from simple hashtag searches. Worse than the disease itself, it was often implied. Just look at these bad tweets on Twitter.com! Second, because most reporters are terrible at vetting information when it requires numeracy, they want to file many, many, many articles about how the seasonal flu was a greater threat than the coronavirus. Meanwhile, trade shows and global production lines began to shut down, when the flu never causes them to shut down.

Readers searching for articles about the coronavirus, trying to answer their own questions about whether they should take any precautions and what might those be, were simply misled. In fact, all the articles citing a viral spread of anti-Asian racism were talking about nonfatal and nonviolent verbal incidents. And as more information came out it turned out that the coronavirus is 20 times more deadly than seasonal flu. But the overwhelming response to reader interest about Wuhan virus amounted to “Stop being racist” and “If you’re worried about the coronavirus but not about the flu, maybe you’re too stupid to live.”

Public authorities have been no better. On January 22, the Emergency Committee of the World Health Organization issued a statement saying that they couldn’t agree whether the virus constituted a public-health emergency; they promised to reconvene. Finally, on the second-to-last day of January, they declared the Wuhan virus a public-health emergency, but their statement was mixed up with boot-sniffing disavowals of any criticism of the Chinese government. “The Committee emphasized that the declaration of a PHEIC [Public Health Emergency of International Concern] should be seen in the spirit of support and appreciation for China, its people, and the actions China has taken on the frontlines of this outbreak, with transparency, and, it is to be hoped, with success.” Readers might take this as a statement that China was being transparent and taking an approach worth appreciating. It’s not the WHO’s job to police appreciation for China’s actions.

Where could reason be found? Although China could squash Hong Kong like a bug, Hong Kong’s medical establishment beat the WHO to the punch by several days, issuing no pleas of respect for and cooperation with Beijing. Its advice was frank and chilling. “Substantial, draconian measures limiting population mobility should be taken immediately,” said Gabriefl Leung, dean of the University of Hong Kong medical school. Schools in Hong Kong were closed for two months until further notice.

While Western reporters were still filing their glib stories about how the only danger was the spread of viral anti-Chinese sentiment, Hong Kong’s doctors were warning that they saw no reason not to expect a global pandemic. “There is already self-sustaining transmission in quite a number of Chinese cities,” Leung explained. “Because we have at least four city clusters around the country that have extensive links with the rest of the world’s airports, then the chance of seeding sufficient numbers in overseas cities such that they would generate their own epidemics, is not trivial.”

China had already shut down Wuhan and Shanghai. These are cities larger than New York and London, and together they have a manufacturing capacity that now rivals those cities at their historic heights. In fact, it raises the question of whether the WHO and large parts of the media are subject to a kind of soft bigotry when it comes to China. A shutdown of equivalent Western cities would be treated with gravity. The media would respond to reporting on the economic and public-health impact, not on anti-English sentiment. The World Health Organization would not be tiptoeing around, trying to flatter the local government.

How many people around the world will die of an excess of respect for the Chinese government, and a lack of it for Chinese people? It will be more than the number who die from the bad tweets.

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