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Rethinking media coverage of COVID-19: A call to humanize people's suffering

By Hodan Osman Abdi | cgtn | Updated: 2020-02-17 11:24
A Pakistani student (C) studying in China poses for photos with medical staff after his recovery at Guangzhou No. 8 People's Hospital in Guangzhou, south China's Guangdong Province, February 12, 2020. /Xinhua Photo

COVID-19 exposes media dysfunction

In mid-December 2019, my conversation with Chen Zhaoyun, one of my oldest friends in China was dominated by one topic — how they were going to spend this year's Lunar New Year holidays, where they were traveling to and what they were going to do there. Only a few weeks later, the whole conversation was filled with panic and uncertainty. My friend had to explain to her six-year-old son why they couldn't travel anymore, and why they couldn't even leave home and take him to the playground where he met his friends on weekends.

Moreover, they had to grapple with panic and fear, uncertainties that had suddenly taken over their work-life routines, and most importantly, the insults, stigma and negative sentiments that are being waged against them online.

Other than the obvious bias prevalent in most Western media reports and the rhetoric of blame and shame defining the narrative, what really struck her was the complete lack of compassion or even sympathy for the thousands infected, and the tens of millions of people under quarantine and confined to the limited spaces of their homes. The stories of foreigners scrambling to find way out of quarantine zones or stranded at sea in large cruise ships seem to get much more exposure and attention than the stories of the sick in China and the medics who are risking their lives treating them.

Speaking to her, I couldn't help but wonder: Where is all this blatant cruelty coming from? Why is the media and technology that are supposed to be connecting us dividing us? In our quest to connect, are we in fact sacrificing our humanity?

There are many advantages to living in a world where a tweet I send from home in Mogadishu, Somalia, can be instantaneously viewed and commented upon by someone as far as Mongolia, Antarctica or Haiti. It is extremely empowering to know that with 140 characters, or a one-page blog post, you can actually reach and influence millions of people around the world with your ideas and thoughts. It would appear that in essence, knowledge and knowledge sharing has gained freedom from arbitrary institutions that seemed to hold it hostage.

And like a bird released from its cage, information seems to be flying in every direction — unchecked! And here, we see its darker side. Messages that spread and reinforce divisive ideas of racial discrimination, hatred or mistrust have finally found an outlet where all of their hatred could be poured, and in some cases, streamlined and normalized.

Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, wasn't wrong to warn recently that "humanity connected by technology on the web is functioning in a dystopian way. We have online abuse, prejudice, bias, polarization, fake news, and there are lots of ways in which it is broken." And in times of global crisis of this scale, we experience this form of dysfunction first hand.

Cyber-racism in mainstream media

A close look at information being circulated online and featured in the media ever since the coronavirus outbreak made the news shows that two strategies dominate the narrative: Denigration and the re-framing of news focusing on negative aspects of Chinese culture and its current communist rule. Both strategies are closely linked to what scholars term "cyber-racism."

In fact, what we find to have resulted from media coverage of the coronavirus outbreak in China is a hostile racial climate, where Chinese people, instead of being sympathized with as humans in suffering, have actually been criticized, blamed and stigmatized worldwide. This is in fact an extremely worrying trend. Because we have now seen several incidents of violent actions perpetrated offline by individuals radicalized by hateful and biased rhetoric consumed and engaged with online.

In France, a front-page headline in Le Courrier Picard, a regional newspaper read "Yellow Alert," while in Australia, The Herald Sun, a newspaper owned by the Murdoch empire published an article "China Virus Panda-monium" over an image of a red mask. And in Germany, Der Spiegel, a popular center-left weekly magazine published a cover featuring an Asian man wearing a protective suit and mask while looking at his phone. The headline read "Made in China: When globalization becomes a deadline danger." All of these outlets were widely criticized and some redacted their content and apologized.

However, as a result of these examples and many more in Western mainstream media, incidents of xenophobia are on the rise and have been reported online from individuals even as young as 10 who have come to associate the virus directly with China and indirectly with the Asian continent. In Georgetown, Ontario, TIME reported children playing a new game of testing Chinese-looking playmates for coronavirus. The New York Times reported car drivers speeding by shouting things like "keep your virus, dirty Chinese" and "you are not welcome in France" at people from Asian descent.

And everywhere around the world, if you look like you're from Asia and happen to cough on a bus or a train without a mask on, you should expect plenty of hostile stares. In incidents such as these, it is extremely difficult to clarify where the line can be drawn between justifiable fear and indisputable discrimination.

Wuhan Virus - a catchy, but detrimental name

Several things actively contribute to this growing negativism with regard to China. The most important of which might be related to a name. Calling the virus the "Wuhan Virus," or the "China Virus" directly links the virus with a geographic location and its people. However catchy it is for media practitioners to cling on to, is simply wrong. This practice has exacerbated preexisting xenophobia and racial prejudice against Chinese people. This adds to recent rhetoric of trade wars and accusations of economic espionage against China, and further vilifies and reaffirms negative sentiments with regard to the country and its people.

Although this is not the first time a virus was named after the geographic location in which it first emerged, I believe this may prove as one of its worst examples. We all witnessed the discrimination against people from African descent after the Ebola Outbreak in 2014, as well as the increased discrimination against Mexicans and Latinos during the H1N1 Swine flu outbreak in 2009.

We need to remember the pain

The world may be inclined to criticize some of the quarantine measures implemented in China, restricting the movement of people and effectively placing entire cities on lockdown. However, at the rate this infection has been spreading, the world is all the better for the sacrifices my friends and their families back in China have made throughout the past weeks. I cannot even imagine the rates of global infections in the news today had this outbreak happened anywhere other than China.

A country with enough skilled personnel, manufacturing and agricultural capabilities to enforce preventive measures, provide medical needs, as well as ensure the provision of sufficient food and water for a population no less than the one occupying the African continent as a whole. Before we rush to sit on our high chairs and criticize from the safety of our homes thousands of miles away, let's just ask ourselves what would have happened had this outbreak occurred in any other country, especially one with fragile healthcare and governance systems. It would indeed have been catastrophic.

In a conversation with Quartz, former human rights lawyer and citizen journalist who traveled to the epicenter of Wuhan to report on the outbreak the day after the quarantine was instilled, Chen Qiushi, said something that moved me — "you need to remember the pain caused by the virus." And as Edward W. Said mentions in his widely acclaimed book Orientalism: "Most important, humanism is the only, and I would go so far as to say, the final resistance we have against the inhuman practices and injustices that disfigure human history."

Let's humanize people's suffering, put prejudice aside, and take action to protect the very tools designed to instill harmony and freedom from being used to divide us. The differences that may exist between us as defined by our color, race or ethnicity, cause much more happiness and bliss than to be reduced to a vision of a "clash of civilizations" pushed by notions of racial discrimination.

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