Coronavirus was running fifth in BBC News’ ‘Most Read Stories’ listicle yesterday evening, after the ghastly car fire in Brisbane, Harry and Meghan’s exit part 94, a murdered rapper and the ongoing repercussions of Caroline Flack’s suicide.
The coronavirus piece was basically a 1,100 word article about people who aren’t ill getting off a cruise ship to go home.
Some of them, the BBC’s correspondent breathlessly reported from her dockside stakeout, “even decided to take a taxi”.
A taxi! Can you believe it? OK, so they tested negative for coronavirus and therefore they obviously didn’t have Covid-19 so they were really no different from anyone else hailing a cab.
But for gosh sakes, at least have the common decency to stay with the herd. Shuffle obediently aboard a bus looking simultaneously grateful to be alive while wracked with guilt at the possibility you might still turn out to be a plague carrier.
Because that’s how the media’s Killer Virus News Story Template goes. All new viruses are ‘killers’ (except ordinary flu, which is a massive killer – 13,000 dead in the UK in 2013 – but simply too boring to report). Whenever a new killer virus comes along, all the world’s a stage for a scare story in which the media have pre-written everyone’s part.
If governments take calm, coordinated measures, the media accuses them of failing to do enough to stop the virus spreading. When they act decisively, the press say they are heavy handed and ruthlessly trying to hide the massive risk THEIR virus poses to US.
China, therefore, is media heaven because they can paint the crisis response at the epicentre of the outbreak as incompetence and ‘secrecy’ and the tough but effective quarantine policy imposed elsewhere in the country as authoritarian control-freakery.
This BBC report entitled “Walking Beijing’s near empty streets is a good example.
Beijing is abnormally quiet because it’s in the second week of a 14-day self-quarantine programme to try to limit the spread of the virus. So what does the BBC’s Beijing Man do but get up at the crack of dawn to ensure the emptiest possible streetscapes? He then cruises around asking the few people about at that hour whether they are (a) very afraid of coronavirus, (b) absolutely terrified, or (c) on their way back inside for a change of underwear.
Beijing has so far identified, wait for it, 395 cases of coronavirus infection in a population of 21.5 million. Of those cases, as of 20 February, 153 no longer have the virus, 238 are either infected but OK or infected plus ill with Covid-19, and four have died. Beijing’s fatality rate so far from coronavirus is 1% of all identified infections and around 2% of those who’ve gone on to develop Covid-19.
Hardly SARS or MERS. But do those figures get mentioned in the BBC’s walk through the valley of the shadow of death? ‘Course they don’t.
Minuscule outbreak this side of the English Channel. No one killed
The UK offers the media no less slim pickings from a fear mongering perspective. A total of 5,216 people had been identified and tested for coronavirus in Britain as of 19 January. Only nine of them tested positive. The rest were confirmed negative. None of the positive cases is said to have become very ill, let alone died.
That hardly fits the media angle that any minute now the NHS will be Overwhelmed By Killer Virus cases infecting up to 40 million Brits. You should have heard Justin Webb haplessly trying to spin that one on Radio 4’s Today, last week.
So the Killer Virus News Story reluctantly remains focused on the Diamond Princess where, if Covid-19 proves to have the same 1% percent mortality rate as in China, there’s a risk that five or six more of its currently-infected passengers might die in addition to the one Covid-19 death announced on 20 February.
Cruise ship passengers are not a notably young and healthy demographic. That makes them more susceptible to Covid-19-induced pneumonia. However, few Princess passengers grew up amid the kind of indoor air pollution-induced lung damage that many now-elderly Chinese experienced 30 or 40 years ago.
Indeed, the one 80-year-old Princess passenger known to have died from Covid-19, who was Japanese, is reported to have had an underlying condition. Their spouse died from pneumonia at the same time, though they were apparently not infected with coronavirus.
As so often when the UK media loses its collective marbles, it was left to the satirical mag Private Eye to inject a note of sanity. ‘M.D.’ (Dr Phil Hammond) reminds us:
“Pandemic infections come and go, and Covid-19 may yet turn out to kill more Brits than seasonal flu does every year. But pandemic panic always causes significant harm and usually overloads the NHS more than the virus. Yes, it’s exciting that a virus may have come via snakes, bats and pangolins to infect us. Yet it may be less deadly than boring old Influenza A in a bad year. So get a grip and wash your hands: it’s the best thing you can do to protect yourself.”