• Lydia Serrant

Coronavirus: What’s Happening to Our Media?

The extended lock down period due to Covid-19 public health measures has taken us all by surprise. Experts and government officials are still at loggerheads about which approaches work best to reduce the spread of the virus and safeguard the public. Social distancing, curfews, and PPE for healthcare workers have gone some way towards alleviating the pressure put on local hospitals, but the real risk is evident in the lack of government action in protecting everyday citizens.

Whilst politicians hash it out behind their podiums, real people and real lives are at risk. Some countries such as Turkey and Morocco have implemented compulsory mask-wearing in public places with promising results. However public healthcare officials in the West have been slow to adopt this measure. Germany has only just made mask-wearing in crowded areas mandatory. The Czech Republic was the first country to adopt the method, making mask-wearing in supermarkets, pharmacies, and public transportation mandatory for all citizens back in March. European countries who have opted for compulsory mask-wearing have to date totalled the lowest numbers of coronavirus cases and deaths in Europe, so why are other European governments so hesitant to pass protective mask-wearing measures into temporary emergency law? Why are our new-outlets protecting the government and spreading disinformation?

Despite the positive outcomes from countries who are wearing masks, there is still debate among politicians and scientists as to whether or not wearing a mask helps to protect people from the virus. The main concern, they tell us, is that people may touch their faces more often if they are wearing a mask. The public is understandably concerned that they are being given contradictory advice based on conflicting evidence, much of which does not hold up or make much sense. Advice such as this can cause people who would prefer to wear a mask reluctant to do so, potentially putting themselves and the people around them at further risk of contracting the coronavirus, and the last thing we should do is to make people afraid of using protective equipment.

The leading discussion around the dangers of the coronavirus is how do healthcare workers and everyday citizens protect themselves and their loved ones from contracting the virus and accelerating the spread. And in order to protect themselves effectively, the public needs unfettered access to the truth.

Several studies have concluded that people touch their faces around 16 times per hour on average, whether they are wearing a face mask or not. A separate study that appeared this year in the reputable scientific journal Nature found that mask-wearing was very effective in reducing transmission of influenza and other flu-like viruses from person to person.

Unfortunately, the media frenzy around the spread of the virus has made us more and more confused, and straightforward advice and research are getting lost amongst the noise. The information overload makes it difficult to separate fact from fiction. Politicians and scaremongers are taking full advantage of the situation by spreading unsupported pseudo-facts to suit various agendas, causing panic and confusion on a global scale.

The Media Problem

From short PPE supply trains to International Coronavirus Control Committees, we have become subject to an endless stream of news, updates, and debates over how to best approach the problem of personal hygiene security and public protection from a pandemic.

This article is an attempt to address some of the public confusion around compulsory mask-wearing and provide an up to date and honest perspective on how the coronavirus is being reported and the true effect of public mask-wearing measures.

One thing we can all probably agree on is that a lot has gone wrong with the media coverage around the coronavirus outbreak. Never before have we experienced 24-hour news channels broadcasting continuously about the same subject: COVID-19. The virus has taken over our television schedules like none other, which is indicative of the gravity of public concern.

Fox News has recently come under fire for its constant flip-flopping over coronavirus reporting. The US Republican Party has also been accused of using Fox News coverage of the virus as a means to undermine their political opponents - The Liberal Democrats.

The broadcasters at Fox news paint a completely different picture of the virus from one week to the next. Sean Hannity, a US Talk show host, and political commentator has been especially indecisive when it comes to keeping the American people up to date about the Coronavirus.

On 7th March during his Fox News segment Hannity the commentator and journalist used the Virus to slam the Liberal Democrats accusing them of ‘’using this virus as a political weapon against the president’’ He continues to downplay the situation by stating that ‘’The standard flu every year kills tens of the thousands of Americans’’ Then, precisely one week later on March 17th, Hannity’s tune changed completely, he warned ‘’We are entering what will now be the most crucial defining 15 day period as it relates to this virus, where we must slow the spread of this coronavirus’’.

The issue with indecisive and conflicting news reports is that they are causing actual harm to the general public. The average age of a Fox News viewer is 65, meaning that their viewership is especially at risk when it comes to contracting the virus. A Pew Research study found that 79% of regular Fox News viewers believed that the virus was not harmful and that safety measures had been greatly exaggerated. The research demonstrates just how influential news outlets are, and that the risk of spreading the contagion is significantly increased when true facts are sacrificed at the altar of politics.

Meanwhile, The Reuters Institute at the University of Oxford conducted a study analysing 200 false Covid-19 claims made by news outlets. They found that 38% of misinformation was entirely fabricated and a staggering 59% of false claims were intentionally manipulated facts. For example, during the early stages of the outbreak, news spread fast across the globe that the virus could not withstand warm temperatures. Newsrooms across Europe claimed that countries with hotter climates would be somewhat immune to the virus, and the epidemic would die out by itself during the summer months.

The public believed this theory to such an extent that local governments were hoping that the pandemic would die off by itself within a few weeks. The UK government even opted to ‘Delay’ the spread rather than ‘Prevent’ as it hoped that summer would naturally slow the steady march of the virus and mark the end of the pandemic. However, it was later found that the original report was based on a contested study that demonstrated that the virus only becomes unstable at temperatures exceeding 70 Degrees Celsius, far hotter than any natural weather found anywhere on Earth.

So, with screwed facts and misinformation flooding our television screens, how is the public to know where to turn to for reliable advice based on solid evidence? Particularly when it comes to wearing face masks and what kind of face mask to wear?

The Facts as We Know Them

Chinese scientists and doctors at the epicentre of the outbreak have consistently warned us about the misinformation regarding the coronavirus, and that it is their number one concern for the global population.

George Gao, director-general of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is urging governments and local healthcare providers to insist on the mandatory use of protective masks, especially for healthcare workers. The N95 surgical mask is not intended for public use but will go a long way to protecting medical staff from contracting the virus and potentially spreading it further. Whereby surgical face masks are appropriate for daily wear and will provide an extra layer of protection for the public, especially for those who are still required to make daily commutes.

The World Health Organisation claims that baseless facts are spreading ‘’Faster than the virus’’ So we are doing our part to tackle this problem by supplying scientifically supported products and advice to both the general public and healthcare professionals. Our equipment is designed by specialist disease control institutes, backed by scientific research and years of medical testing data.

The video below features factual advice and guidance from Shan Soe-Lin who is an expert in Public Health and her husband Robert Hecht, Professor of Clinical Epidemiology at Yale University. Both advocate public mask-wearing and social distancing and believe that is it irresponsible of governments to ask their citizens not to wear masks, or inform that that they are only essential for healthcare workers.

Sales for masks and protective clothing have soared in recent weeks, and governments are concerned that supplies may run out. While this is a valid concern, and supplies should be prioritized for healthcare professionals, asking the public not to wear masks at all is only going to increase the spread and put even more pressure on local hospitals and healthcare providers. Public workers that do not have the luxury of social distancing, such as checkout assistants, postal workers, taxi, and local transport drivers such be especially vigilant when it comes to mask-wearing in public.

Another issue is that government-backed ‘experts’ are making confident claims that facemasks do not work to protect against the coronavirus - or any other virus for that matter. Unfortunately, this information is misleading millions, as the issue is far more complicated than it originally appears, and a simple ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ answer is not sufficient.

Trisha Greenhalgh et al published the article ‘’Face Masks for the Public during the COVID-19 Crisis’’ the paper was a critical analysis of published studies that were conducted to measure the effect of mask-wearing and disease control within the general population and acute medical wards in hospitals and healthcare sites.

She and her team found that claims made by experts that masks have no effect on controlling pandemics were based on insufficient evidence. Most of the research was focused on the method of the testing procedure and its validity, rather than the statistical significance of the research findings. The reports were either systematic reviews that showed no randomised trials of mask-wearing during a COVID-19 pandemic, or a panel deliberation study between teams of experts, and the report itself was absent of any original data, or the sample sizes were so small that the results were not considered statistically significant.

Out of all the studies they analysed, only a small number were robust enough to be considered eligible. They identified 31 studies, including 12 randomized controlled trials that demonstrated sound scientific reasoning and independent research. On average, the eligible studies showed that the use of face masks had a positive influence in slowing the spread of respiratory diseases, even if in some instances the effect was small due to other external variables outside of the studies’ control. The trials also demonstrated that mask-wearing was particularly beneficial for those with underlying respiratory or cardiac health concerns.

Greenhalgh and her team concluded their findings to say that evidence-based research that is being used to dismiss the use of mask-wearing is not sufficient enough to back claims that face masks do not work. That overall, mask-wearing, and disease prevention requires a lot more study and analysis. However, she strongly advocates that governments adopt ‘The Precautionary Principle’ as a strategy for virus control in light of lacking evidence and that the public should be asked to wear masks as a matter of caution.

‘’The suggestion that the public should not wear masks because healthcare workers need them more is valid up to a point, but it is surely an argument for manufacturing more masks, not for denying them to populations who could potentially benefit from them.’’ - Trisha Greenhalgh et al (BMJ 2020).

Given light of medical research findings, it is not at all surprising that countries refraining from implementing compulsory mask-wearing measures and failing to deliver the adequate protective equipment for workers at risk are experiencing some the highest contraction and mortality rates during the coronavirus epidemic. Misleading and conflicting information that is being distributed via 24-hour newsreels is adding to an already exacerbated issue. Researchers at the epicentre of the outbreak are strongly recommending the use of daily masks or face coverings for members of the general public, particularly those who work closely with others, such as public service officials and healthcare providers.

Public confusion and mass panic have gripped the public over the past few months. Due to the outbreak of the coronavirus and the fast spread of the virus has made us all the more aware of how fragile our infrastructure and our health really is.

The most unfortunate circumstance that has become apparent is that the governments and local authorities have been slow to respond to the epidemic and have failed in key areas to protect the public. Misinformation has been the key culprit in quickening the spread of the virus, as basic governmental precautions had been abandoned, or delayed, causing unnecessary harm to vulnerable members of the public and heroic healthcare workers and frontline staff.

Popular News Outlets have taken full advantage of the confusion and lack of government response. They have published confusing and misleading information to suit various agendas and their own purposes or in aid of political supporters that influence the network and the information feed. Fortunately, there are a few vigilant listeners out there, who have gone to great lengths to expose fraudulent new reports and highlight the crossroads between privatized media and public interest. Scaremongers and tacticians have always been present when it comes to news reporting, but the COVID-19 Pandemic has aggravated the issue on a global scale. Members of the general public are now sceptical about the new they chose the receive, listen to and act upon. Whilst caution is always advisable, true, and honest new reporting and medical advice appears to have fallen victim to the ever-growing mistrust of official information sources. It is most imperative now, more than ever, that reputable and qualified medical professionals and experts get their voices heard, and make their message loud among the backdrop of misinformation and falsehoods.

One person wears a mask alone is not going to stop the spread overnight, but if everyone wore masks, washed their hands regularly, and practiced social distancing properly, then we would see a plateau and eventual decline in cases at a faster rate than currently seen.

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