Panic! The coronavirus debacle—who’s to blame?

It is fair to question whether the media has done, or is doing, a proper job of providing accurate information while avoiding the ratings- and revenue-driven temptation to blow the problem out of proportion.


On this day, March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) officially declared the Covid-19 contagion a pandemic.

As I write, The New York Times reports that “at least 1,015 people in the U.S. have tested positive for the virus, and at least 31 have died.” Meanwhile, the DOW is tumbling into bear market territory. (At the end of the day, it lost 1,465 points, down 20% from its record close in February.) Bad news, to be sure, but do the known facts justify the panic in the stock market? 

Consider the following:

  • Influenza  The Center for Disease Control (CDC) places the death toll from influenza in the U.S. in 2017-2018 at 61,000. Globally, the CDC estimates that between 291,000 and 646,000 people die from the flu every year. 
  • Cancer The American Cancer Society estimates that  606,520 people will die from cancer in the U.S. in 2020, “which equates to 1,660 people dying of cancer each day.” The World Health Organization (WHO) puts total global annual deaths from cancer at 9.6 million.  Cancer is the second leading cause of death; heart disease is the first.
  • Cardiovascular (CVD) diseases According to the CDC, no fewer than 647,000 Americans die from heart disease  every year (1,772 deaths per day). WHO estimates put the number of deaths from CVDs each year at 17.9 million (or 49,041 deaths per day).
  • Diabetes Around 1.6 million people died due to diabetes in 2016, according to the WHO (4,383 deaths per day). In the U.S., 34.2 million Americans (10.5% of the population) had diabetes in 2018. In 2017, 83,564 U.S. death certificates listed diabetes as the underlying cause of death.

To repeat, as of this writing, slightly more than 1,000 individuals in the U.S. have been reported as testing positive for the Covid-19 virus and so far 31 have died. Of course, many more cases—especially mild cases, which are the most common—have gone undetected. And, it’s worth mentioning that the Trump administration, having endeavored to cut the CDC money and staff, is woefully unprepared to meet a true health crisis on the scale of a pandemic.

Without trivializing such numbers or minimizing the real danger this virus represents, it is fair to say that the Trump White House has displayed a combination staggering incompetence, arrogance, and ignorance in responding to public-health policy issues in general and the coronavirus outbreak in particular. Meanwhile, President Trump’s tweets display a callous disregard for facts and again testify to his total mental and moral unfitness to lead the nation.  

And then there’s the press. In light of the general panic as evidenced in the mainstream news media, the wild stock market volatility, and consumer behavior (e.g., the disappearance of certain items like masks, disinfectant wipes, and even toilet paper from store shelves) of late, I decided to take a close look at a broad spectrum of news and information that has shaped the public perception of, and reaction to, the novel coronavirus outbreak. Many, indeed most, of the articles can be fairly judged to have contributed to a sense of alarm; most convey the same basic view: the danger we face is little short of apocalyptic. Finally, I found Jon Henley’s sensible piece in The Guardian (“Coronavirus: nine reasons to be reassured”). 

Without minimizing the seriousness of the Covid-19 virus, Henley notes that “context is the key” and asserts “the world is well-placed” to respond. Three points, in particular, deserve highlighting, points that neither the incompetent Trump White House nor the copy-cat mainstream news media have given proper coverage:

  • “We know it can be contained (albeit at considerable cost). China’s draconian quarantine and containment measures appear to be working.“
  • “Catching it is not that easy (if we are careful) and we can kill it quite easily (provided we try). Frequent, careful hand washing, as we now all know, is the most effective way to stop the virus being transmitted. . . . To be considered at high risk of catching the coronavirus you need to . . . have direct physical contact . . . or be in [close] face-to-face contact [with someone infected . . . for more than 15 minutes.”

Again, none of the above is meant to minimize the public health challenges, social disruptions, or economic consequences of the Covid-19 contagion. But it is fair to question whether the media has done, or is doing, a proper job of providing accurate information while avoiding the ratings- and revenue-driven temptation to blow the problem out of proportion.  

While we are being informed how many people have died from the novel coronavirus, it behooves news organization to remind us that this infectious disease is not the only or even the major killer in our midst. Tragically, suicide claims the lives of nearly 45,000 Americans every year according to the CDC (one every 12 minutes). In 2018, 39,014 people died in motor-vehicle accidents in the United States.

Unfortunately, we can’t expect responsible leadership from Washington so long as the GOP, the Senate, and the Supreme Court are in thrall to a rogue and reckless president. But we can expect the media to give us all the facts fit to print and to use a wide-angle lens where the story calls for it—even if it means presenting the news with more perspective and less pizzazz.


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