Why I’m not scared of the coronavirus: Binary outlooks and a toxic news agenda are far worse
Today I was asked if I’m worried about the coronavirus. The conversation very quickly moved on to, “so what’s all the fuss about, in your opinion?” What follows here is what I said, more or less.
News cycles have a lot to do with it. Ten or so years ago, when the 24-hour news cycle was dominated by the likes of BBC News 24 and whatever the Sky News equivalent was/is, there was a tendency for the media to talk to itself (obsessively) about the things it was talking about: here’s the story, here’s the pundit, here’s some analysis, here’s a comparison of the punditry and the analysis, here are more and more and more lukewarm takes on a story that will never develop fast enough to feed the news cycle.
That’s all different now, of course. Now the media obsesses over what people are talking about on social media – what’s trending on Twitter, what’s big on Instagram, and so on. These things get picked up in a “we must cover this” manner in an attempt to attract an audience and drive clicks, rightly or wrongly*. By latching on to (rather than tapping into) what appears to be of great import to the public, the news media perpetuates a sense of relevance that often only exists in and of itself.
So, it’s easy to see why the media is falling over itself to cover the coronavirus story – everyone’s talking about it… because everyone’s talking about it.
From the medical/clinical perspective, it’s clear there’s an element of “well, this is new” in the reaction to the virus. And it is. No one is really sure how it will spread or how much harm it will do. A lack of definitive guidance from the clinicians on how bad it might be creates a vacuum which speculation will naturally fill. See above remarks about the media and trending topics.
And then there’s the China thing. What China thing..? Google ‘Trump China’ and watch some videos of him stirring up ill will. The US/China trade war that’s been hanging over everyone’s heads for what feels like years, is wonderfully binary in the way it is presented and covered. Whether you agree with one side or the other, you have already accepted there are sides. The coronavirus story slides into that narrative so smoothly it’s like a Barry White B-side after dark. It’s the perfect us vs them story. Literally, US vs them.
Here in the UK, the anti-China rhetoric is less present. The trade war is less of a concern. But we’ve had three or four years of the media in the UK feeding us our very own, very British us vs them story – Brexit. Pick a side, we were all told. In or out. For or against. Leave or Remain. It was black and white, simple-dimple. No grey areas. No nuances. No attempts to scrutinise the issues. Nothing was ever discussed, everything was SHOUTED. You were either with us, or against us – the ‘us’ being wholly dependent on who you were talking to.
Frankly, it’s made a mess of things. I think the media and the country as a whole have been afflicted by something not unlike institutionalisation or Stockholm Syndrome. After so many years of being yelled at about picking a side, that’s all we get to hear. Look at the way the media in the UK covered the story of two members of the royal family stepping down. It was bordering on hysterical and, again, it was reduced to a binary choice – are you with them or against them?
The coronavirus is the next gift that keeps on giving to a lazy news media and its undiscerning audience. You can see the fingerprints of all of the above in the way this story is being treated. There’s the dog-with-a-bone manner in which it is never away from the headlines. The way it is being propelled around the echo chamber of what’s trending. And the over-simplified, shouty manner in which we are all expected to pay attention and be afraid. It won’t be long, I’m sure, until there are stories of people not wearing face masks being stoned in the street and being portrayed as enemies of the people.
That’s the one thing I am worried about – what happens to people who become victimised or marginalised. Those of us in paid work can rest assured that our employers have a responsibility to us, our colleagues, and the welfare of the business. If we choose to self-quarantine we can claim sick pay. If our employers send us home as a precautionary measure, we’ll be paid. But what if you’re a self-employed delivery driver, or a zero-hours food services worker? What then? Where’s your safety net?
So, no I’m not scared of the coronavirus. I’m in no hurry to get ill, I’m not stupid. And I hope no one I know gets ill. But I’m not as scared of the virus as I am of some of the other things that are happening in this country, like the way we are being constantly nudged toward no longer thinking for ourselves and the gradual drift toward increasing self-centredness that puts us at odds against our fellow human beings.
If you want reliable information on the virus, you could do a lot worse than Public Health England.
* Rightly or wrongly..? Who am I kidding? It’s wrong. I wish they’d stop it.
Airmen assist one another in donning their personal protective equipment, while on-board an Air Force C-17 Globemaster III during transportation isolation system training at Joint Base Charleston, South Carolina. Engineered and implemented after the Ebola virus outbreak in 2014, the TIS is an enclosure the Department of Defense can use to safely transport patients with diseases like novel coronavirus. (US Air Force photo by Senior Airman Cody R. Miller)