‘When Sir Patrick Vallance, the government’s chief scientific adviser, announced measures against the coronavirus, he warned “they need to be done at the right time, in the right way, at the right stage”. Indeed: changing behaviour to counter the virus is one thing. Changing behaviour that will cause panic and fear is another.
The conflation of the fear of a thing and the thing itself is intellectually lazy but surprisingly common. Journalists’ failure to understand and probe that distinction is costing us dear. Other people in public life—the health service and medical experts and, yes, politicians—have risen to the challenge. For the media it is a less uplifting story.
Three factors lie behind this: historical amnesia, the abandonment of curiosity, and the voracious appetite of a 24-hour news machine.
First, history. Remember swine flu (H1N1)? It was going to wipe us out, but we got through it. The Department of Health predicted in July 2009 that as many as 65,000 Britons could die over the winter. The chief medical officer, Professor Sir Liam Donaldson, said that a “minimum” of 3,100 deaths were expected. In the event H1N1 took 457 British lives. Going further back, remember also the bird flu and mad cow disease scares.
These previous attacks should have brought some sense of context and some welcome scepticism to the reporting of the current pandemic. Will Covid-19 go the way of the previous viruses or not? If not, why not? What is the balance of risk? To what extent is the damage caused by the response to the virus greater than the virus itself?
These questions identify the second factor: the desire to find things out and go beneath the surface of stories seems to have left the newsroom. Take Italy. It has been suffering more than other Europeans countries. Eyewitness reporting has its limits—how many closed cafes, empty streets and tumbleweed towns do we need to see to get the point? What about “why”? I have seen no serious attempt to get to the bottom of Italy’s higher mortality rate. Rumours abound about the garment industry in Milan having hired thousands of Chinese workers from Wuhan; has anybody asked how many of the fatalities in Italy are Chinese, or have had contact with Chinese workers?’