Pandemic panic

‘It will be several months before we know the human damage the coronavirus has done. But the damage wreaked by fear has now become overwhelming’

Samir Shah

When Sir Patrick Vallance, the government’s chief scientific adviser, announced measures against the coronavirus, he warned “they need to be done at the right time, in the right way, at the right stage”. Indeed: changing behaviour to counter the virus is one thing. Changing behaviour that will cause panic and fear is another. 

The conflation of the fear of a thing and the thing itself is intellectually lazy but surprisingly common. Journalists’ failure to understand and probe that distinction is costing us dear. Other people in public life—the health service and medical experts and, yes, politicians—have risen to the challenge. For the media it is a less uplifting story.

Three factors lie behind this: historical amnesia, the abandonment of curiosity, and the voracious appetite of a 24-hour news machine.

First, history. Remember swine flu (H1N1)? It was going to wipe us out, but we got through it. The Department of Health predicted in July 2009 that as many as 65,000 Britons could die over the winter. The chief medical officer, Professor Sir Liam Donaldson, said that a “minimum” of 3,100 deaths were expected. In the event H1N1 took 457 British lives. Going further back, remember also the bird flu and mad cow disease scares.

These previous attacks should have brought some sense of context and some welcome scepticism to the reporting of the current pandemic. Will Covid-19 go the way of the previous viruses or not? If not, why not? What is the balance of risk? To what extent is the damage caused by the response to the virus greater than the virus itself?

These questions identify the second factor: the desire to find things out and go beneath the surface of stories seems to have left the newsroom. Take Italy. It has been suffering more than other Europeans countries. Eyewitness reporting has its limits—how many closed cafes, empty streets and tumbleweed towns do we need to see to get the point? What about “why”? I have seen no serious attempt to get to the bottom of Italy’s higher mortality rate. Rumours abound about the garment industry in Milan having hired thousands of Chinese workers from Wuhan; has anybody asked how many of the fatalities in Italy are Chinese, or have had contact with Chinese workers?

Similarly incurious is the analysis of what is an acceptable level of risk. Recently, one of the world’s leading scientists reminded us that: “People accept thousands of deaths from flu and don’t even bother to get the vaccine.” Why are we so relaxed about 17,000 dying every year of flu (the average annual toll, according to Public Health England)?

The third factor is the 24-hour news machine that now dominates our lives. H.L. Mencken once said of politicians “The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety)”. Nowadays Mencken’s observation can better be applied to the media.

In a laughable exchange on the Today programme recently, the chief scientific adviser was invited to join in the alarmist enterprise. He refused, remaining restrained and precise. Frustrated, the presenter called in the aid of that well-known know-nothing, Donald Trump. Apparently, POTUS had made the “outrageous” suggestion that the mortality rate of coronavirus was only one per cent. Surely that was not right? Unfortunately, Sir Patrick replied that one per cent was about right and could even be lower. 

There is a reason for the media pushing the alarm button. Crises sell. People buy papers, watch the news and listen avidly to radio to get the latest on this advancing apocalypse.

Round-the-clock news means hours of broadcasting time to fill and acres of new copy to be filed. There is a desperate need to “move the story on”. Early on, when the virus was doing its thing in Wuhan, an excitable political correspondent berated Boris Johnson for not dropping everything and immediately convening an emergency meeting: this was not merely to score a political point but to move on the story. More recently, at a calm and measured press conference, the prime minister, flanked by his medical advisers, spoke of the actions being taken or rather, not taken.

The fear among journalists was palpable: how could they possibly keep the story “moving on”, if politicians did nothing? One non-action was the decision not to close schools. Up piped a journo demanding, why not? Other countries had done so, so why not the UK? It is as if we were in a race to adopt ever more draconian measures. The next day the Evening Standard quoted a tweet from that world-famous medical authority, Cesc Fabregas (yes, the footballer), who lives in London, as “vehemently disagreeing with that decision”. (Please note: when there was a change in advice, it was decried as a U-turn by the Guardian and the Daily Mail.)

Political coverage of Brexit was manic and frenzied. Any number of parliamentary votes were reported as existentialist threats to the government. They weren’t. Cliff edges followed cliff edges. No-one went over. Brexit deadlines came and went. This fevered response, or Armageddonitis, has infected the reporting of Covid-19. 

The best guess is that coronavirus will enter the human population to join other seasonal flus. A new cocktail of vaccines will be developed. Predicting how many will die is a mug’s game. I suspect, within a few months, the messaging will change, and life will get a lot calmer. The media will report this as if they had no role in stirring it all up in the first place.

Imagine, if at the end of the day, the numbers are in the same ballpark as the 17,000 that die every year from flu. The people paying the price for the media’s Armageddonitis will be picking up the pieces of their shattered businesses wondering, with some justification, what redress they have against those who brought about this self-inflicted disaster.

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