By Lourdes Pullicino – Former journalist, lecturer in media and international relations
On 25 March, Reporters without Borders (RSF), the world’s largest NGO promoting freedom of information argued that had the Chinese media been free to report, the coronavirus may not have developed into a pandemic. It is a massive assertion but RSF corroborated the claim by factual information that is in the public domain.
We know (RSF, 2020) for example, that by 20 December 2019, the authorities in Wuhan were aware of at least 60 patients who were exhibiting symptoms which were similar to a SARS-like pneumonia. Moreover, these patients had a common thread – they had all visited the Huanan Fish Market in Wuhan. The authorities did not see fit to inform the media and the Fish Market remained open for another 10 days. Only then, on 31 December 2019, did the Chinese authorities officially alert the World Health Organisation. In the interim, doctors in China discovered that cases were affecting medical staff, thus confirming the high contagion of the virus. Other doctors, at a different hospital in Wuhan, who did launch an alert were arrested by Wuhan police on the grounds of circulating ‘false rumours’. The word went out on January 11, following the first death, when researchers leaked information on open source platforms. Those researchers were punished by the closure of their laboratory.
Compare this with the outbreak of the Spanish flu, a century earlier, which claimed the lives of an estimated 50 to 100 million and coincided with the First World War. Laura Spinney (2017) wrote a book, ‘Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu on 1918 and how it changed the world’ in which she documents the way news of the outbreak eventually emerged. While the first reported cases occurred in Kansas in the United States in March 1918, neither the US, nor Britain nor France, reported the outbreak. She argues that this was the result of wartime censorship of the press as authorities recoiled from sinking the morale of their populations further thus opting to keep the outbreak under wraps. The news would emerge from Spain, a neutral country in that war and one which thus did not inhibit newspapers from reporting on the outbreak in that country. In Spain, the pandemic afflicted also an important patient – King Alfonso XIII thus providing more visibility. The pandemic would come to be called the Spanish flu notwithstanding that Spain had not been the first country experiencing cases.
These two scenarios, a century apart, highlight some significant similarities. They also demonstrate the importance of the media as a tool to limit the spread of diseases. While the poor health infrastructure of the last century may have contributed to the massive loss of life, with or without media messaging, the same is not true for present circumstances. An analysis by the University of Southampton suggests that numbers in China would have been reduced by 86% if first measures, taken by China on 20 January, had been anticipated by 2 weeks. It is likely that had journalists and the public been able to report on the virus earlier, the authorities in China and the rest of the world would have been pushed to action earlier.
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