Media’s Love of Fear takes Coronavirus Coverage to the Wrong Place

Wuhan, not us, should be the focus of Coronavirus Coverage

By Santiago Plaza
Staff Epidimeologist

Recently, the phrase ‘history repeats itself’ has become all the more powerful; fascism has returned with new hatred, WWIII looms ominously on the horizon, the Jonas Brothers are back together, and we are currently facing a new epidemic. In the 1820s, the first cholera epidemic (1816-1826) and the second cholera epidemic (1826-1837) ravaged Europe and Asia, the first one taking estimated tens of thousands of lives, and the second one killing around 100,000 in France alone; in the 1920s, the Spanish flu infected an estimated 500 million people and killed anywhere from 20-50 million of them. This pattern seemingly spells our doom, and apparently, the way nature spells ‘doom’ is with the letters c-o-r-o- n-a-v-i-r-u-s.

Coronaviruses (CoV) are a large family of viruses that cause a range of illnesses from the common cold to SARS, severe acute respiratory syndrome, and MERS, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome. They are zoonotic, which means that they are transmitted from animals to humans. Coronaviruses were first discovered in the 1960s, found in the nasal cavities of two common cold patients, and, more recently in 2003, there was an outbreak of SARS-CoV with 8,098 probable cases and 774 deaths, according to the Center for Disease Control. This new wave, originating in Wuhan, China, has already infected some 2,700 people and killed at least 80, according to BBC News and The New York Times as of Sunday the 26th of January 2020. Since the first reported case on January 9th earlier this year, the virus has spread to North Korea, Japan, Australia, The United Kingdom, and even the United States, among others. The five confirmed cases of 2019-nCoV, the new strain of novel (new) Coronavirus, in the United States were found in Washington, California, Illinois, and Arizona. The symptoms of 2019-nCov are hard to pin down, with reports ranging from infected people with little to no symptoms to people gravely ill and dying. The general symptoms are coughing, fever, and shortness of breath. The CDC indicates that symptoms may appear anywhere from 2 to 14 days after exposure, based on the MERS coronavirus strain. This is especially worrying because, unlike SARS or MERS, 2019-nCoV is still contagious whether symptoms are present or not. The head of China’s National Health Commission, Dr. Ma Xiaowei, warned that the disease could be transmitted from person to person before symptoms arose. However, coronavirus isn’t the only plague running rampant.

Fear of 2019-nCov has spread even faster than the plague itself. A travel ban placed on Wuhan caused panic for its citizens, thousands of people crowding train stations across Wuhan trying to escape before they were no longer able to. According to the New York Times, 5 million people are estimated to have left Wuhan before the city’s travel restrictions were put into effect, leaving a total of around 9 million people behind. The over-proliferation of news coverage on the disease has left people terrified and paranoid across the world, affecting even more lives than those infected. This global panic has taken precedence in our minds and lives over our awareness for our fellow people. The reality of the situation is that the looming catastrophe 2019-nCoV seemingly brings really is not that terrifying.

The effects of 2019-nCoV pale in comparison to the 21st century’s track record of plagues and pandemics. The CDC estimates that in the span of a year (April 2009 – April 2010) anywhere from 43 million people to 83 million people could’ve caught swine flu, with the midrange of swine-flu related deaths being ~12,700 people. That means that if we were dealing with swine flu right now, the number of infected people would be at least an estimated 32 times greater. Or what about the common cold? Easily one of the most over-looked diseases in current memory, it kills an estimated 56,000 people yearly, according to the CDC. Although these don’t, and shouldn’t erase the worry of coronavirus, the awareness that most people are not in danger of this disease should be brought to the forefront of our media. There should be fewer articles about our chances to catch coronavirus and more reporting on how to help the people who have already caught it. Every single one of the reported deaths of 2019-nCoV has been in China, all ~250 of them, and although the disease is spreading quickly, our distrust of one another is spreading even faster. That is not to say that we should not put our safety before our courtesy, but that we should be more compassionate than paranoid. Coronavirus has been declared a global health emergency by WHO, but we should not forget about Wuhan and the people still residing there, trapped and separated from the world, and most of all, we should not forget the lives of the sick and deceased and mark them up as just a number. So before you side-eye someone on the train for coughing, make a Black Plague joke, or read yet another stat sheet on ‘The New Plague’, remember Wuhan.

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