“Wash your hands and don’t be racist”: The media and coronavirus

“Wash your hands and don’t be racist”: The media and coronavirus

[Written by Beth Kennedy (she/her)]

[Image Credits: Florence Bridgman (she/her)]

Content Warning: Contains discussion of racism.

There is a classic saying within journalistic practice which says: “The mass media doesn’t tell you what to think, but it does tell you what to think about.” You would be hard pressed not to hear this expression rattling around the room of every media and communications seminar in the UK. The hardcore sceptics among us might even go as far as to argue that the mass media does in fact do both. However, for the sake of argument and in support of any remaining faith in western democracy, let’s take the original quote as accurate enough for now. With this in mind, the British press has a tendency to focus attention on events and stories littered with catastrophe, political insecurity, violence, and death. Broadcast and print media aim to entertain and shock audiences by exaggerating the severity of news events as well as tapping into social anxieties. For example, red tops like The Sun and The Daily Mail often run stories which demonize asylum seekers and refugees, accusing them of entering the UK in order to “bleed dry” the NHS and “abuse” the benefits system. These same publications use dehumanising language such as “flock” and “swarm” to viscerally describe the movement of non-British, non-white people into the UK. The media draws on social insecurities alive in the UK relating to a lack of jobs and scarce housing in order to create moral panic. The after-effect of this rabid dog reporting is rampant xenophobia, the gradual normalisation of racism towards the “other”. Eventually, this take on events shapes political discourse, potentially through the lens of problematic nationalism – aptly illustrated by Brexit.

Since the emergence of the free-market, the British media has been scrambling to stay relevant amidst global competition and the wondrous invention of entertainment TV. It is no surprise that when scrolling the Mail Online our eyes are met with benefits scroungers, sex scandals, anti-vax debates, botched plastic surgeries, criminal immigrants and gang culture to name a few. Some news media in the UK can definitely be a source of balanced reporting, but there are precious few. It more often looks like a circus, stirring up drama and fear of the unknown to sell copies and clicks.

In recent global news, the world’s gaze has fallen upon China. A collection of viruses originating in mainland China, has killed roughly 2,940 people. The death toll exceeds that of the 2003 SARS outbreak and has infected over 86,000. In order to contain the spread, the Chinese government among many others have banned international travel and instructed citizens to stay at home and avoid work and school. Mass quarantines have also been essential in containing the virus and helping treat those infected. At the time of writing, China still remains the hardest hit location for both infected people and deaths. Reported cases of infections remain concentrated in parts of East-Asia, with about 79,250 reported in mainland China. The coronavirus has been a central focus for many UK news outlets since the start of the outbreak, with the virus even being described by the UK Health Secretary as a “serious and imminent” threat to the British population. Curiously, at the time of writing, only 23 cases of infection in the UK have been reported which might suggest the high level of threat the virus poses to British lives is somewhat misplaced. Publications such as the Guardian, both online and in print have informed readers of the outbreak on the basis of general public awareness of global issues. The kind of reporting shown by the Guardian and also the BBC online generally avoids loaded language, scare-mongering and clickbait headlines. Unfortunately, the most widely read publications in the UK do not always adhere to the same set of ethical guidelines.

In the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, tabloid headlines in the UK have cultivated social fear and panic. Pictures of Chinese citizens and quarantined workers dressed in gas-masks and full-body protective suits are regularly a visual focus of articles reporting on the virus. Their facial features, sometimes even their eyes are covered and all that can be seen are gas masks. Taglines like “killer virus”, “lockdown Britain” and “viral plague” invoke social fear as well as a collective belief that coronavirus-linked deaths in the UK are likely to occur. Problematic taglines coupled with dehumanising photos act to assert the Chinese subjects in the pictures (and the Chinese population as a whole) as sinister and threatening villains.

One angle on the origin of the coronavirus which has been uncritically circulating in some UK newsrooms suggests that the virus is a consequence of Chinese eating habits. Many red-tops have concluded that the virus originated from bats which are often eaten in the form of curries and soups across parts of China, notably in Wuhan where the outbreak began. By attacking Chinese cultural practices, the UK media builds a picture of blame which affixes race to the virus. Deeper prejudices have clearly been exposed as a result and unfortunately have infringed on the rights of the individual. There have been many cases of verbal and physical abuse towards university students believed to be Chinese as well as an abundance of sinophobic “jokes” on social media platforms. Various universities, including The University of Edinburgh have issued emails to all students warning of increased racial harassment and abuse due to recent events in China. People have taken to Twitter, condemning the “unsanitary” and “barbaric” eating practices of China. Many Chinese restaurants across the UK, including those owned by second and third generation Chinese have suffered reduced custom since the outbreak, damaging sales. Some British citizens of Chinese descent have even been told to “go home”, despite being born in the UK. Negligent reporting of the coronavirus in Britain as well as the problematic public discussions which have followed, has demonized an entire racial group.

In the UK, there is a growing social belief that suggests British cultural and social practices are the only right ones. There is also a growing lack of tolerance towards practices which seem “inherently foreign”. Throughout British history, East-Asian countries (particularly China) have been regarded as unclean and uncivilised. Although progressive discourse and “woke” culture aims to combat racism, an underlying “culture of disgust” towards the “other” still remains. Bird-flu and Mad-Cow disease were not racialised, unlike SARS and the coronavirus which originated in China, as well as the ebola outbreak of 2013, originating in West Africa. Professor Roger Keil, who works in environmental science at the University of York has recently urged that we must combat the spread of the virus as well as the sinophobic prejudices resulting from it. Very simply, he comments: “There are two things to remember every morning when you get up: wash your hands and don’t be racist.”

The coronavirus has claimed thousands of lives in mainland China and a few elsewhere. Scientists and health experts are unsure when the death toll will stop rising and if at all a cure will be found. The virus is of course relevant to the rest of the world, even to those in countries where it is having little to no effect. Information transparency helps educate on global affairs and can also aid international help and development of a cure. The UK news media has the power to inform and educate but also the ability to create and maintain moral panic. Diseases and viruses can no doubt be frightening things. A world on the brink of environmental collapse and changing political landscapes is characterised by fear of the unknown. However, we must remain highly critical of media systems and public discourse which racialise scientific issues. In a necessary return to rational thinking, let’s blame the virus and not scapegoat a race.

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