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The media infected Europe before the coronavirus

As I am sitting in one of the numerous university libraries in Singapore, where I'm currently on a student exchange, I stay alert to incoming news from the various news apps installed on my phone. The buzz phrase of “consuming news” digitally has never been more suitable. People are exposed to breaking news headlines through apps and social media, which take a fraction of a minute to read.

We have become needy for information: we pick the stories we find interesting, that impact us geographically and personally, and move on to our daily activities. Our attitude has led the media to change its strategies to face the demand for faster and objective news reporting; a vicious cycle of ever faster information processing and consumption. Has this behavior led us to become more unconscious about what we read, and led the media to underestimate the risk coverage of COVID-19?

Where was the media?

Looking back, there has been a clear mismanagement by the European media to tackle the severity of the crisis. As an avid news reader, I remember barely hearing about the coronavirus in the Western media when I landed in Singapore beginning of January. Two weeks after my arrival, Singapore had already taken measures to limit public gatherings and YouTube suggestions popped up in my recommendations from press conferences of the Ministry of Health published by the local news agencies.

The local media started to take the epidemic seriously, as Chinese New Year was approaching and many families were about to travel around South-East Asia to gather with their loved ones. Their curiosity, fueled by the extensive media coverage of the issue, translated into Singaporeans wanting to understand what the coronavirus was about. The peak of Google word searches for the coronavirus happened during the second week of February in Singapore; meanwhile, it was the end of February for Italy and it has not yet reached its peak in France or Germany.

“coronavirus” word search on Google Trends

Looking at the wording of certain media articles prior to the COVID-19 outbreak in Europe, people had little reason to fear the virus as there was no indication coming from the media that our continent could be affected. To illustrate this, the BBC published an article on January 18 titled “New Chinese virus will have infected hundreds”; with hindsight, an underestimation of what there was to come.

Such wording used in articles created a distance between the situation in Asia and the people in Europe. Why would we need to worry about a virus if it only impacted the region of Wuhan, which no one had heard of before January? While many are qualifying the world today as a “smaller” place thanks to technological improvements, I find that there is often a tendency to create distance when tackling news that pertain to communities different from us; this may be justified when it does not impact our lifestyles, but this has clearly not been the case with the coronavirus.

Who shall we blame?

Not only did it seem that the media was pushing it aside, but politicians and members of important European governments also had the same reaction. Recently, in an interview with the newspaper Le Monde, the former minister of health in France admitted that she had already alerted French prime minister, Édouard Philippe, on January 30 about a potential outbreak. If this and other warnings received by the European governments had been reported by the media at the time, we would have perhaps come to acknowledge the danger of a COVID-19 pandemic sooner and had more time to prepare for it.

In the rising times of fake news and faster information spreading, the role of traditional media has increased more than ever as they assure accountability toward the public. But the traditional media also have had to reinvent themselves to fit the trend of delivering faster news with less analysis of the facts, leaving them open to everyone to interpret; and this “unprocessed” information can be dangerous in the hands of some politicians, for example.

Given the lack of information we had about the coronavirus (and still have), I would have expected more efforts to understand and question the limitations of our healthcare systems and the policies undertaken by governments – and a less superficial account of events. The lack of such analysis led Europeans to believe that COVID-19 was an “Asian” problem, but in fact, the media did not consider that globalization and ease of mobility around the world were factors that could have an effect on propagation of the virus. Accounts of medical staff were contradicting one another with some stating that it was “just a flu”, very often creating a contradiction between Asian and European medical authorities. This delayed the recognition of the virus’s rapid propagation and had repercussions for how governments have responded (for example, by getting hospitals ready to face the epidemic), and for what people today believe to be the right preventive measures as they are forced into confinement.

By pushing for faster publishing, the press forgot its role in educating the people and analyzing further the actions taken by the competent authorities around the world. Had this been done, Europeans (and our political elites) would have been able to see the actions taken in Hong Kong and Singapore at the beginning of the year in their context, and understand the importance of social distancing and contact tracing without having to go to full confinement for an undetermined period.

Looking beyond the tip of one’s nose

As the lives of Europeans are now centered around confinement, we are being flooded by updates on COVID-19 around the world. How odd has it become that now any (optimistic) news from China or Wuhan sparks hope throughout the continent? The German media report about the solidarity of Italians, but this is also reported by the Polish, Belgian and Spanish press.

What is happening now on the other side of the world will impact us, and this is perhaps a new realization for a lot of Westerners that concerns not just the coronavirus but also other topics, such as climate change and finance. I can only hope to see the press and individual journalists understand their role in society, but also have us, consumers of news, reflect on what type of media we want to have and demand more quality of information. This is important in order to guarantee the survival of qualitative journalism and the freedom of our press, and to end fueling the machine of ignorance.

In this series, our writers share their thoughts on the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. They rely on personal experiences and observations during this difficult time. The opinions expressed here are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect positions of European Generation.

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