There is a mix of fear and fascination about issues that one cannot grasp.
This is in part happening with Coronavirus, recently renamed COVID-19, possibly in the attempt of giving the virus a technical vest, which would mean that the scientific community is gradually getting acquainted with it.
Despite the headlines made by the infection since its outbreak, it is not yet completely clear what this new kind of flu means for mankind, if we except the global unrest generated by the media worldwide and the consequent hysteria that it caused.
First, it can be useful to try to frame the trending topic, by summarising what is known about the virus.
It owes its name to the form of the cell carrying the genetic material which causes the disease and it belongs to a group of viruses that can affect the human body in different ways, from mild forms like cold and pneumonia, to more dramatic ones like the notorious SARS (2003) and MERS (2009), as explained in one video from the World Health Organisation.
Apparently, Coronavirus appears to be transmitted from live animals (spillover to humans), although the convicted ones are not yet known. The dynamics of human to human transmission are also unclear at the moment.
Some symptoms include fever, cough, pneumonia, kidney failure and, in extreme cases, death.
The geographic spread has been effectively limited, thanks to the rapid diffusion of news on the virus itself, which contributed to the immediate adoption of drastic measures by Governments internationally.
If from one perspective, it can be affirmed that the speed of communication was able to alert instantaneously a global audience, making aware both upstream and downstream audiences, on the other hand some doubts remain about whether this urgency is actual or whether it is – at least in part – artificially crafted.
Some reasons for these doubts are the following:
As a recent article from IlSole24ORE states, the Coronavirus’ death-toll, which is one of the most mentioned topics in broadcast reports, is around 2% which makes it far less dangerous than past worldwide epidemics like Sars (9,6%), Mers (34,4%) or Ebola (over 50%), but even not so scary as “normal” flu, which despite having a lower death-rate, can be far more contagious outnumbering the death count in absolute terms.
Indeed, the Istituto Superiore Sanità (ISS) refers that in the present season the daily death rate for flu in Italy is over 200 people per day (211 against the expected 237, as shown below), which makes a seasonal fatality rate of roughly 7.000-8.000 deaths.
Up to 12th February, the COVID-19 had killed 1.115 over an estimated number of 45.179 reported contagions worldwide, just 3 of which are in Italy and very few outside mainland China (Germany being the most affected Country so far with 16 reported cases), as IlSole24ORE reports.
Back to the start, it can be legitimate to ask if it is really an outbreak everybody should worry about or is it just an agenda-setting which escalated out of the media’s control for some reasons?
Additionally, why doesn’t normal flu make the news, despite its higher number of contagions and of casualties every year?
There are some aspects, which make indeed the Coronavirus an interesting story and a preferred subject for storytelling, from the media perspective.
The first point to consider in the coverage of Coronavirus is its impact.
Although the core of the virus appears still to be concentrated in the area of Wuhan, the news of its possible outburst and its connected dangerousness were able to spread universally in a very short time.
The case mounted on the human need of social interconnectedness, stressing – at least initially – a common interest towards a menace which was potentially threatening the whole mankind and fostering a sense of belonging and unity against the invisible enemy.
The news also took advantage of a contextual absence of some big headlines and of the natural speculations about a subject which is widely shared in this period of the year.
Indeed, timeliness was paramount in the coverage of COVID-19, mainly due to the time period (flu normally reaches its peak between January and February every year) and to the staleness of other global topics on the media agenda (trade wars between China and US were slowly converting into a soap opera, while Brexit was finally in its latest stages: in short no really powerful news on the international panorama).
Proximity is another factor which made the news particularly upsetting for most of us: today China is a main actor in the global scenario, both at a macro-level (economically and industrially) and at a micro-level (through a massive immigration visible in all urban areas and thanks to growing touristic waves). In a way, it is like China, its people and its culture are getting more familiar and more embedded into our daily lives after years of segregation.
Lately, as a strengthening argument, many newspapers have begun to stress the consequences that the virus is bringing for any of us on subjects other than health: sourcing of wares and supply-chains being disrupted with consequent loss of economic output, conferences and events being cancelled and touristic tours being annulled.
All facts which bear an economic impact to be felt even in the smallest communities, due to the globalisation of trades and migrations.
This brings forward the conflict issue: a threat which seems nearing up steadily and which bears no clue for a solution is deemed to stir up anger, disappointment and even haphazard reactions.
Again, from a media perspective, a quarrel story sells much better than any ordinary story, while the motto “no news, good news”, as almost everybody knows, does not hold in the broadcast world.
Coronavirus, in this sense, made it very clear where to trace the line between us, sometimes equated straight with the Western Countries and them, the geographically distant Far-Easterners, who hold to different cultural values and are therefore “alien” subjects.
This aspect was repeatedly stereotyped in the news, sometimes with the intention of facilitating the understanding of boundaries, but actually mounting to real-life tensions: especially in Italy, it was far too obvious the equation between Italian-healthy-safe vs Chinese-infected-dangerous with dramatic racist episodes in daily routines that also influenced the political agenda.
The novelty is the last criteria which favoured the spread of the news, and which in turn benefited from it: a never-heard-of planet-wide plague is surely newsworthy, although it is still to contend if COVID-19 is yet a plague because the news says so or if it made the news because of its intrinsic danger.
All the above should encourage to always take a critic approach at the news, especially in periods of generalised panic: we are actually getting used to it, because of the ever more frequent fake-news.
Consulting official sources – as in this case would be the websites of WHO, of National Health Departments or of scientific research Institutes – could help to downplay the hype and to understand if the buzz is grounded or if it is being fuelled by general panic, in turn feeding sensations’ prone newsmakers.
This could also help uncover facts, which are much more of interest to each person (like normal flu, in this case), but are normally underestimated for the reasons stated above.
Indeed, the criteria for making the news – to which we could add prominence and oddity, even if not featured in this case – are valid even on an individual basis and they can help better understand the value of any piece of news for one own’s purposes.