Alarmist Chinese coverage of MERS – Counterproductive?

Huizhou, China - where patient zero lives. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Huizhou, China – where patient zero in China lives. Source: Wikimedia Commons

BY ELIZABETH ZHANG

Aside from the recent tragedy of the Eastern Star shipping accident and the unsurprising daily glamour coverage of China’s economic boons, one item has invaded the news waves with particularly sustained intensity. The arrival of MERS-coV’s (Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome-coronavirus) patient zero in Huizhou of the Guangdong province has since carved out a considerable portion of China’s state-run televised press, CCTV, and its associated editorial news programming. On May 29th, 2015, a 44-year-old South Korean male tested positive for the MERS virus after presenting with flu-like symptoms upon entry into China. [1] At the same time, the worsening MERS-coV outbreak in South Korea continues to generate considerable international concern. So far, there have been 165 confirmed cases and 23 known fatalities. [2]

MERS-coV is a virus that infects primarily bronchial epithelial cells, much like the SARS and common cold coronaviruses, though the specific mechanism of infection is distinct. [3] MERS-coV has a relatively low risk of sustained person-to-person transmissibility, and it is still up for debate whether infection can occur upon contact with contaminated bodily fluids. [4] With no vaccine nor cure for a disease that progresses to fatal pneumonia in about 30% of cases and considering China’s history with the SARS and H7N9 bird flu epidemics in the past thirteen years, heightened public alertness and interest in the wake of new epidemics is understandable. [5]

Unfortunately, like many of its privately owned, international counterparts, Chinese news coverage of the outbreak is disproportionately alarmist.[1] Aside from one reported case, all other individuals that came into contact with the patient have been successfully quarantined, and none shows signs of illness. Despite this fact, CCTV news editorials report every detail with hair-raising urgency, utilizing imagery and clip splicing typical of scare tactics employed by late-night local “news” shows (think: “Is Your Toothpaste Poisoning Your Children” and the like). The relentless repetition, Jaws-esque music playing in the background, and bold-faced headlines exaggerating the disease’s virulence suggest that either the media is engaging in a daring amount of sensationalism or the PRC’s Fourth Estate thinks its viewers are hard of hearing. (Needless to say, it’s most likely the former.)

3D image of the MERS virus. Source: WIkimedia Commons

3D image of the MERS virus. Source: WIkimedia Commons

At a basic degree, I can almost understand the media’s position; the news serves to inform the public and frame the popular mood towards policy. A widely cited criticism by health organizations and politicians alike attributes the spread of epidemics occurring in the last two decades (SARS, swine flu, Ebola, etc.) to slow policy responses to contain outbreaks in the disease’s country of origin. Sometimes this came in the form of inadequately committed resources or initial (and perhaps intentional) concealment of the outbreak’s existence. There is some logic behind the question: if the news alerted the public enough to “press” politicians into action, then what’s the harm?

For one, the recent outbreak has shown that historically, heavy media coverage of epidemics has had almost nothing to do with preventing governments from hand-wringing in the early stages of an outbreak, which is arguably when public health measures, when executed efficiently, are the most critical and cost-effective. In the case of MERS-coV, it was the slow policy response in Saudi Arabia to initial infections that are now cited as being responsible for the global percolation of the disease. Initial media scrutiny during the discovery of MERS-coV in 2012 and its slow spread up until 2014 was similarly alarmist (while not as sensationalist as that observed in the past month) but did little to reverse the policy reticence on the part of the Saudi Arabian government that led to its spread to Asia. While the usefulness of the media in informing the public of important measures cannot be understated, popular media outlets shirk the responsibilities of presenting facts as they are in favor of reinforcing a message that spreads unnecessary fear amongst audiences. This fear can paralyze political action and propagate an “us versus them” mentality that is counterproductive to international cooperation in managing health crises.

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[1] Given this point, an interesting political question arises about why a state-run news channel whose editorial content not only engrosses a large share of Chinese viewership but also whose daily 7:00 PM news reports enjoy mandated broadcasting on all local channels feels the need to sensationalize epidemics, if not for the sole purpose of monopolizing the Chinese audience.

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Citations:

  1. Schnirring, Lisa. China has first MERS case as Korean cluster grows further. Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, 29 May. 2015. Web. 18 June. 2015. <http://www.cidrap.umn.edu/news-perspective/2015/05/china-has-first-mers-case-korean-cluster-grows-further&gt;
  2. Schnirring, Lisa. Thailand reports first MERS case; South Korean adds 3. Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, 18 June. 2015. Web. 18 June. 2015. <http://www.cidrap.umn.edu/news-perspective/2015/06/thailand-reports-first-mers-case-south-korea-adds-3>
  3. Severe respiratory disease associated with a novel coronavirus. European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control. 19 February. 2013. Web. 18 June. 2015. <http://ecdc.europa.eu/en/publications/Publications/novel-coronavirus-rapid-risk-assessment-update.pdf>
  4. Frequently Asked Questions on Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV). WHO. 12 June. 2015. Web. 18 June. 2015. <http://www.who.int/csr/disease/coronavirus_infections/faq/en/>
  5. Koba, Mark. MERS: Controlling a virus with a 30% fatality rate. CNBC. 16 May. 2014. Web. 18 June. 2015. <http://www.cnbc.com/id/101676381&gt;
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