How Not to Report on COVID-19
An Indian wears a mask and walks on a street in Hyderabad, India, Thursday, March 5, 2020.
An Indian wears a mask and walks on a street in Hyderabad, India, Thursday, March 5, 2020. (Photo: AP News)

How Not to Report on COVID-19

Yes, there’s a global pandemic. Yes, it’s contagious and scary.

But don’t panic - it’s not nearly as bad as it sounds.

Sound weird? That's exactly what will get us through this.

So of course, World Health Organisation certified public health emergency should get your alarm bells ringing - but a measured response will help keep you protected. Just remember: it’s not that deadly!

It’s not an apocalypse or a war situation at all, you do not need to be hoarding sanitizers and food. Ever since the world turned and there were humans who inhabited it, there were diseases. Some worse than others, but global pandemics - from the 1665 bubonic plague to 2009 H1N1 - are an expected occurrence.

And because we know the flu virus is contagious and evolves rapidly, we knew there would be a flu epidemic shortly. So health experts are prepared, China bought the world time with isolating an entire district, and health workers are working round the clock to make sure this is contained.

Are they short-staffed? Are hospitals overburdened? Do we need more funds for vaccine development? Yes, yes and yes.

But here’s why you - the general public - should stay calm and carry on (just wash yourself a bit more.)

Also Read : COVID-19 India Update: Total Stands at 43


1. Opinions Are Not Facts

(Photo: PTI)

Let’s keep the facts and opinions separate. As reporters, we can try segregating our stories into three broad categories, keeping science and opinions separate so that the information doesn’t get clouded with unnecessary panic.

a) What We Know - This includes news updates, what experts are saying and verified information from peer-reviewed studies, WHO or verified sites, or from health authorities and ministries. It may be a good idea to stick to the basics and not populate the data with scary adjectives. As a practice, we at FIT have not been referring to COVID-19 as “deadly”.

b) What Experts Can Predict - Here, health leaders can infer from the evidence that we currently have and make predictions based on past trends. This includes speculation on whether the virus would die in the summer, how fast it will spread and the extent of community transmission. It could be subjective depending on which country we are talking about - for example, in India, public hygiene, population and immunity levels could impact the way the virus spreads in our country which would be markedly different than how it spreads in Italy. This category has expert-led opinion and judgements but is different from hard facts.

Within this, there can be various sub-categories. There are diverse experts with equally valid opinions on public health - and they each have a different perspective and audience in mind. Look for information from myriad sources to get a well-rounded idea.

c) Opinions: op-eds about living in the time of coronavirus by people affected - the social isolation, the woes of homeschooling and the everyday boredom can fit here. The xenophobia against Chinese people or of calling it the ‘Wuhan disease’ (when was H1N1 called the American disease?), the social issues of anxiety and class privilege are important facets of this global pandemic and deserve separate attention than that reserved only for facts.

Also Read : COVID-19 India | 3-Yr-Old in Kerala Tests Positive for Coronavirus

2. Go Slow

While experts knew this pandemic was coming - no one knew exactly what it was and what could stop it. This is a new virus and new data is constantly coming up, so as reporters, we need to balance our need to break the news with verifying and understanding the implications first.

Slow consumption of news also helps calm mental anxiety, and is a good practice in general. With fear-mongering issues, slowly consuming and stewing on the information before panicking could be useful. Accurate reporting should be removed from the need to grab eyeballs and be first in our attention economy - especially in times of a health crisis, the right information is more powerful than the fastest finger first.

Additionally, with facts that keep evolving it’s important to slow down more so than ever before. For example, when suspected cases are kept in isolation, it’s best to report them as such rather than assuming they are part of the confirmed count before their test results are confirmed to be positive. Look out for maps or studies or reports with dates, and stay updated as new information is constantly cropping up.

Reporting is often subject to political pressures, and there is a motivation to keep the public on high alert. Pressure should be put on authorities to increase funding on fighting infectious diseases and epidemics but mass hysteria is counter-productive: hoarding sanitizers or food grains artificially drive up the cost of essential goods, and keeping masks is not only not helpful to fight the virus, it always takes away from people who need it like infected people or health workers and drives the spread of infection up.

This brings me to my next point:

An Indian woman and a child wearing masks sit outside Government Medical College hospital in Jammu, India, Sunday, March 8, 2020.
An Indian woman and a child wearing masks sit outside Government Medical College hospital in Jammu, India, Sunday, March 8, 2020.
(Photo: AP News) 

3. Focus on What Matters

So far what we know is that this novel coronavirus is not as deadly as past pandemics (think SARS) but it does spread fast. Much has been said about asymptomatic patients transferring the virus at the speed of light (or movement) -but WHO reports that it is relatively rare for a positive case to come out of interacting with asymptomatic people. They also clarify that this is not a major driver of transmission and most asymptomatic cases themselves are mild, with patients recovering soon after being treated.

Again to repeat, 80% of the cases are mild - so don’t panic, protect the most vulnerable.

We also know that people with existing health conditions and the elderly (over 60) will be hit worse. The WHO, in its Joint Mission report with China from 24 February said, “Individuals at highest risk for severe disease and death include people aged over 60 years and those with underlying conditions such as hypertension, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, chronic respiratory disease and cancer.” The report also found that the fatality rate increased in the over 80’s.

A recent study in the Journal of the American Medical Association, published on 24 February, showed that the majority of cases - up to 90%- were between the 30 to 79 age group.

This report from the Chinese Center for Prevention of Diseases said that only 0.2% of the cases under 40 years were fatal. Meanwhile, children under 10 make up just 1% of all global cases.

But still, just today, there was a fresh report of preschools in Bangalore shutting down indefinitely, and primary schools (up to 5th grade) are shut in Delhi too.

We know that this virus harms more adults and senior citizens than children, so our focus should be on protecting the most vulnerable - target nursing homes and old age shelters rather than schools and nurseries.

Also Read : Dear World, Here Are 10 Reasons Not to Panic About Coronavirus

4. Stop Rumour Mongering -Suggest Ways To Help

In an earlier article, FIT reported on the dangers of rumour-mongering and unverified cures being reported incessantly. If someone in a position of authority claims that cow urine can cure the coronavirus, a simple way to report the news would be to also add WHO’s advisory that clearly says that no cure to COVID-19 has been found as yet.

It can give people a false sense of hope if these facts are not relayed frequently. Besides, if someone believes in unscientific cures they are putting the entire community at risk.

(Photo: WHO)

A Poynter article on effective crisis communication suggests that stories that offer concrete actions to help prevent the virus are more helpful than those that just frighten people and offer vague ‘somethings’ to do. So even if you have reported or shared it before, write the hygiene recommendations or the 20-second washing tips again.

Share honest facts so people can be prepared, but not scared, of whats to come. Aim for meaningful reporting with clear instructions and calls to action - this conversation piece calls it a form of ‘social vaccination’ where more people practice good hygiene and bring down the chances of infection.

5. Contextualise!

Let’s shift gears and think of another virus for a minute: dengue. About 400 million people get infected with dengue yearly. 40% of the earth’s population or 3 billion of us live in areas of risk, as per Medscape. (India being a common hotbed for dengue.)

The incidence has been increasing globally, with around 50-100 million cases of dengue fever, 500,000 cases of dengue hemorrhagic fever and about 22,000 deaths (mainly in children).

While we are rightfully worried about dengue, especially during the monsoons, we are also prepared and not as fearful anymore. Similarly with Swine Flu, what started off as a sudden scary outbreak is now a common yearly occurrence - it's still serious but not nearly as frightening.

Likewise, the common cold or the influenza virus has perplexed many a scientist - it still has no real cure and it infects and kills millions yearly. But we know what to expect and how to mitigate the risks.

Couching our understanding of COVID-19 in these contexts can help calm us and give us a better picture of where we are at.

So, stay calm and composed, report factually and read the news slowly - there’s no need to freak out, just be prepared and wash your hands!

Also Read : WHO Urges World to Take Coronavirus More Seriously 

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