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The language of fear used in media reports about the coronavirus is stoking prejudice ǀ View

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The number of people testing positive for the novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) is growing on a daily basis, with new cases being reported in China, across Asia, the USA and even here in Europe. Whilst the number of cases in Europe remains relatively low, it is hardly surprising that public health authorities across the continent are readying themselves for any new potential cases. The current death-rate from the virus remains quite low, with the majority of people losing their lives to the virus being elderly or having pre-existing health conditions. That being said, it seems clear that people in Europe are still worried about the spread of the virus across the European continent, with the language used to discuss the virus being particularly scrutinised.

The reporting of the initial outbreak of this new strain of coronavirus seems to have sparked fears amongst the general public. Firstly, it continues to dominate the news cycle, with other issues being wiped off the agenda entirely. Even Brexit seemed to be muted for a few days, with the UK’s official departure from the European Union being pushed aside by images of healthcare professionals from across the world in hazmat suits.

It has certainly put the virus at the forefront of the public’s minds, which you might argue helps to encourage health promotion measures, such as good hand hygiene. However, does too much media attention result in a disproportionate response of fear and anxiety from the public? There are, after all, several other health and broader social issues that would also merit such coverage from the press. Moreover, the death rate from the virus remains proportionately low when compared with other viral infections, such as influenza (flu) or HIV. This doesn’t seem to be reflected by the media attention that is being dedicated to the coronavirus.

The death rate from the virus remains proportionately low when compared with other viral infections, such as influenza (flu) or HIV. This doesn’t seem to be reflected by the media attention that is being dedicated to the coronavirus.
Hadley Stewart
Medical journalist

Secondly, the language to describe the virus is also adding fuel to the fires of fear that are burning in countries with confirmed cases. Phrases such as “deadly virus,” “public health emergency,” and “outbreak” mirror the scripts of disaster movies rather than real life. I agree that this is a public health emergency in the sense that public health authorities need to act with a sense of urgency to implement plans to slow down the spread of the virus, to protect vulnerable population groups who might be the most at risk of health complications. That being said, when it comes to the general public here in Europe, the risk remains low.

A consequence of the fear-inducing reporting from certain media organisations has also sparked fresh discriminatory behaviour and prejudice towards those from China and the region of East Asia. Earlier this year, we saw images on social media of people from Wuhan, the city where it is thought the virus originated, facing verbal and physical abuse on the streets of China. Now the prejudice has spread beyond its borders with Chinese people here in Europe also facing abuse. The French social media movement #JeNeSuisPasUnVirus (“I am not a virus”), for instance, is reflecting the stigma that Chinese people are now facing as a result of misinformation about the virus. Anecdotally, we’re also hearing of stories from Chinese people being abused on public transport, boycotts of Chinese restaurants, and broader ignorance towards those from East Asia.

The stigma faced by population groups that find themselves at the heart of an epidemic, can sometimes be more damaging than the virus itself.
Hadley Stewart
Medical journalist

As a journalist with a background in HIV research, the notion that we must exercise caution in our reporting of infectious diseases with regards to stigmatisation of groups is something that remains at the forefront of my mind. I don’t think it’s necessarily helpful to compare the two viruses in terms of health risk – the death rates from untreated HIV are much higher. That being said, when it comes to the stigmatisation of groups in relation to certain conditions, HIV and the coronavirus do have some similarities. The language used to describe the current coronavirus outbreak and the HIV epidemic of the 1980s are somewhat similar; both viruses were described as being “deadly” by media. In the case of HIV, it resulted in the social isolation of gay men, in particular. The initial reporting of HIV implied that the virus was solely associated with gay men, and given the discrimination this group already faced from wider society, this only added to wider trends of homophobia. The naming of the condition caused by HIV was also stigmatising, with AIDS, a condition that is caused by untreated HIV, being termed as GRID (gay-related immunodeficiency) . Although I agree that as a society we have progressed since the 1980s, I fear that we are beginning to see similar stigmatising behaviours and attitudes towards Chinese people and those from East Asia, as we saw towards gay men during the AIDS crisis. This is something that scientists must take into account when giving a less tongue-twisting name to 2019-nCoV.

The uncertainty that surrounds the outbreak of the novel coronavirus is something that will be naturally worrying for the general public, especially for those living in countries with a large number of cases. That said, the death rate associated with the virus remains comparatively low, but this doesn’t seem to be reflected by the amount of media hype that is surrounding this outbreak. What’s more, the language that is being used to report on the virus needs to be careful considered, as a means of minimising public panic.

Most importantly, we need to look at ways of taking into account how our reporting might induce stigma towards people from China and East Asia, much like the homophobia incited by the reporting of HIV during the AIDS crisis of the 1980s. I think this recent epidemic is a reminder of the importance of factual reporting, and the need for more thoughtful consideration of wider social consequences associated with infectious diseases.

The stigma faced by population groups that find themselves at the heart of an epidemic, can sometimes be more damaging than the virus itself.

  • Hadley Stewart is a London-based writer, broadcaster and medical journalist.

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