Novel coronavirus Covid-19: Journalists should avoid spreading fear and misinformation

Not much is known about the new strain of coronavirus recently named Covid-19, which has led to fear and misinformation throughout the world.

The reporting on the virus in China has been publicly criticised by both medical experts and citizens after Wuhan ruling party officials arrested those warning of a possible major outbreak.

Covid-19 whistleblower Dr Li Weinlang, who has since died from Covid-19, was outspoken about the Chinese government’s censorship of the virus. He was arrested after issuing an early warning of the virus and was served a letter of warning by Wuhan police on the grounds of spreading false information.

The strain had been declared a public health emergency after being first detected in Wuhan, China in December 2019.

But there is now a great deal of anger in China about the actions of Communist Party officials, some of whom have been fired by Beijing over their initial response.

The World Health Organisation released its Covid-19 situation report on 11 February, highlighting that there were more than 1 000 reported Covid-19 deaths in China and that one person from the Philippines had also succumbed to the effects of the virus.

An elderly woman from Japan died from Covid-19 on 13 February. As of 14 February, there were over 1300 confirmed deaths in China.

Photos and videos are now circulating across social media platforms on websites which have exaggerated both the virus’ fatality rate as well as a slew of unproven prevention and cure suggestions.

The Conversation Africa health and medicine editor, Ina Skosana said a great deal of misinformation and disinformation is being circulated concerning Covid-19 and that such information “usually spreads much faster than diseases”.

Africa Check has debunked two separate articles that claimed there had been confirmed novel coronavirus infections in Cote d’Ivoire and Nigeria. While there have been a few more novel coronavirus scares dotted across Africa, there are zero confirmed infections in Africa.

Nonetheless, there is a concern of Covid-19 spread on the continent due to its weak health system and the air traffic between Africa and its biggest trading partner, China.

Almost a million seats are available on direct flights between Africa and China on an annual basis. Africa’s biggest airline, Ethiopian Airlines has been adamant to maintain its flights between China and Africa while Kenya Airways has suspended all its flights between Nairobi and Guangzhou in response to the virus.

“I think a lot of the hysteria that's going around isn't merited because we're really seeing most cases being people who have travelled from China. So if you haven't dealt with China or you're not around anybody who has, it's very, very, very, unlikely that you have a novel coronavirus,” said Dr Ngozi Erondu, an infectious disease epidemiologist, consultant and a senior research fellow at the Centre on Global Health Security at Chatham House.

Newsrooms feed this hysteria through “fear-driven narratives” editor and storyteller Sarika Bansal pointed out.

“But also during that time, editors can also ask for stories about places that are starting to contain it. Maybe, in this case, it's too early to do that because we don't know enough about the virus,” Bansal said.

Laura Lopez Gonzalez, Bhekisisa Centre for Health Journalism's deputy-editor said fear-driven narratives often stem from misunderstanding how diseases are transmitted and as a result, marginalises the infected.

“Throughout history, a disease based on fear-driven narratives have contributed to stigma, from typhoid, cholera, Ebola T.B,” she said.

Experts are still trying to figure out the route of transmission of Covid-19 to humans. The Chinese government banned the trade of exotic wildlife meat in a bid to contain the virus as they are often consumed for food or their believed medicinal properties. Some reports have focused on bats being the possible transmitters linked to what is known as the “wet markets” of Wuhan.

In early January, some unconfirmed reports said snake meat spread the virus and more recent research suggests that the endangered pangolin could be the source of spreading the novel coronavirus to humans.

South African Science Journalists Association president Mandi Smallhorne said journalists need to do their background research on the virus and be an “Instant Dummy's Guide to viruses of this nature,” for their audiences.

“[Coronaviruses] are zoonotic diseases. They come about when animals come into contact with people by the way. That doesn't necessarily mean wildlife, because it's China [...] I've seen a few stories where I've thought you’re not asking the question you know, does it have to be wildlife?

“Could it not have been agricultural livestock? That's what triggered the initial story about the snakes, which by the way, turns out to be very dubious. You need to understand the basic features scientifically of illnesses,” Smallhorne said.

“I think this is what you're kind of seeing in the sort of the racist narratives coming up out around coronavirus [...] And so I think that in our reporting we need to sort of be very aware that how those things kind of compound people's vulnerability,” Gonzalez said.

While viral disease outbreaks such as the novel coronavirus have a disastrous impact, Gonzalez said more solution-based stories that highlight “community resilience” need to emerge from affected areas.

“I think it really helps to reframe and show that communities have agency. And there is some really great reporting that happened from Liberia after Ebola,” she said.

Erondu has worked in eradicating the Ebola crisis in West Africa and said reporters need to “humanise” what is happening in the outbreak and not think of the deaths as numbers.

“I remember coming back from Guinea and being on a panel and just hearing all these numbers. People were just talking about the outbreak in terms of numbers and I thought, ‘These are people you know’”.

Reporting on disease outbreaks carries a lot of responsibility given the weight of producing content that is technical, factual and appealing to audiences.

Erondu said journalists need to take this responsibility seriously and “react slower” especially when talking about new outbreaks.

“As a non-journalist, I would just say that when you're reporting on outbreaks or health in general, just remember that you have a higher degree of professional ethical responsibility because what you say and what you convey to the public can really escalate the situation and could really make it much worse than it needs to be. Or, it can make people alert but calm.” Erondu said.

The Committee to Protect Journalists Safety Advisory has published an article offering journalists tips on how to prevent Covid-19 infection when covering the outbreak which can be found here.

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