Analysis: How Zimbabwean Media has Reported on Coronavirus Pandemic

Health Workers. (File Photo)

Zimbabwean media’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic is insensitive and is mostly based on scaremongering.

For that Zimbabwe’s first coronavirus-related death was going to be of the woman who attempted suicide after she couldn’t withstand the constant harassment and the stigma that came with press reports.

The 27-year-old woman had traveled from Wuhan in China where Covid-19 had first been identified and was considered the epicentre of the disease.

She was admitted to Wilkins Infectious Diseases Hospital, a facility now designated as one of the referral centres for potential Covid-19 cases.

She tested negative for the virus and was discharged. She returned a few days later, not because she had signs and symptoms of the disease but because she had attempted suicide.

She had fallen into severe depression due to the way she had been repeatedly quarantined and how her case had been reported in the press.

People who may have been exposed to the disease either through travel or simply through exhibiting flu-like signs and symptoms are insensitively referred to as “suspects” in Zimbabwean media.

The influenza virus and Covid-19 belong to the same family but do not exhibit in a similar manner. But Zimbabwe media now labels anyone who exhibits signs of the flu a “suspect”.

Any dictionary will explain the word suspect as “a person believed to have committed a crime or done something wrong, or someone believed to have caused something bad”.

The word “suspect” comes with stigma because in its everyday use it is associated with criminality. It’s wrong to refer to anyone who hasn’t committed any crime as a suspect. Media around the world use the word “potential” instead.

Bedsides poor choice of terminology local media have weaponized coronavirus to fight the political system. The polarization of the Zimbabwean media is well known and anything that gives the media an opportunity to throw potshots at government is grabbed with enthusiasm hence the scaremongering headlines.

In December 2016 Pope Francis lambasted media organizations that focus on scandals and smears and promote fake news as a means of discrediting people in public life.

“I think the media have to be very clear, very transparent, and not fall into the sickness of coprophilia, that is, always wanting to cover scandals, covering nasty things, even if they are true,” he said.

Coprophilia is an abnormal interest in excrement. The pope warned that readers and watchers of stories meant to scandalize rather than inform risked behaving like coprophagics — people who eat faeces.

Before the Zimbabwean media turn their consumers into coprophagics the whole coronavirus story ought to be put into proper perspective. When it was first reported in China in December it was clear it was a new thing. The word “novel” prefixing it, as in “novel coronavirus”, testifies to this.

“Novel” means “new and original, not like anything seen before”.

This means no country in the world was prepared for it. This is very clear. Look at what has been happening in countries where it has popped up — China itself, Italy, the US etc.

So the poor preparedness or lack of preparedness was never a scandal because no one can prepare for what they don’t know. Responses have varied from country to country.

When looked at objectively Zimbabwe’s response has been decent.

But the headlines have not been reflecting this. Instead they point to a non-existent scandal.

Here is a sample of headlines that readers have been bombarded:

  1. Wilkins coronavirus bombshell
  2. Confusion over Zim’s coronavirus intervention
  3. Coronavirus: Zim will pay the price of denialism
  4. Coronavirus panic
  5. Coronavirus: Zim warned
  6. ‘Why is Zimbabwe still allowing Chinese visitors in the country’

The headlines paint a dire picture; they are meant to spread panic. But fear and panic often worsen the harm.

“People can get worked up and do bad things in response [to fear],” says Philip Alcabes, professor of public health at Hunter College and author of Dread: How Fear and Fantasy Have Fueled Epidemics from the Black Death to Avian Flu.

How then should Zimbabwe media report the pandemic?

The word pandemic itself is being misconstrued to mean Armageddon in Zimbabwean media hence the panic. The coronavirus pandemic is not an event of great destruction as the media portrays it. It is controllable as the Chinese and other countries in the East have shown.

“Pandemics have nothing to do with the severity of a disease but are to do with its geographic spread. According to the World Health Organization, a pandemic is declared when a new disease for which people do not have immunity spreads around the world beyond expectations.” (Guardian UK)

The rule of thumb for the Zimbabwean media is to desist from spreading lies and conspiracy theories.

Headlines such as “Zim too hot for Covid-19” are not helpful.

Harare City director of health Dr Prosper Chonzi is quoted in a local daily saying: “The Covid-19 cannot survive above 25 degrees [Celcius]” without attributing this profound statement to any research.

But is this a scientific fact? People are celebrating this piece of disinformation as a fact. Defence minister Oppah Muchinguri’s utterances on Covid-19 can be traced to reckless statements such as Chonzi’s.

Viruses are known for their notoriously quick mutations; does Chonzi’s statement factor this in?

But what did Pope Francis mean when he said “media have to be very clear, very transparent” when reporting stories?

He meant they should be factual and educate their readers, in Zimbabwe’s  case  educate and inform citizens on how to respond to the disease.

True, governments should lead the response but success stories so far have shown that the general populace has a huge role to play. Media houses should go hyperlocal and set the agenda for a citizen-driven response in their lacalities.

Journalists themselves should read widely around Covid-19; there is already a good deal of information on the internet which is available for anyone who cares to read.

A citizen-driven response means people have to know the signs and symptoms of Covid-19 and they should be tested early. Those who test positive should be quarantined immediately and those who have been in contact with them should be traced quickly and isolated to enable health personnel to predict where the next outbreak could be.

Media should work closely with health authorities and not only subject them to unnecessary attack based on polarity of political opinion. Remember this is a new thing and even the best experts are likely to stumble here and there.

Working closely with health authorities will ensure messages are communicated to the public in simple, clear and consistent terms.

What is known so far is that the disease causes no symptoms or is mild in 81% of cases. In 14% it can cause severe pneumonia and in 5% it can become critical or even fatal. So far the death rate is very low and could continue that way.

Importantly media should tell the consumers of their news that people most of the time will recover from coronavirus-related illness so that their natural reaction is not panic; in fact most infected people are cured.

Media should impress upon citizens that life is literally in their own hands.  They should up the ante on their personal hygiene.

Experts have said: frequent hand-washing with soap and water is the most effective way to avoid contagion.

According to experts the virus can be wiped clean. It can be effectively inactivated from surfaces with a solution of ethanol (62-71% alcohol), hydrogen peroxide (0.5% hydrogen peroxide) or sodium hypochlorite (0.1% bleach), in just a minute.

Behaviour change will be critical when Covid-19 eventually lands on our shore as it very likely to any time soon. In that eventuality people are tipped:

  1. Don’t go out into crowded places.
  2. Try not to eat in public places.
  3. Stay longer at home!
  4. Listen to the Ministry of Health guidelines.
  5. Talk about a metre away from each person.
  6. Avoid handshakes: do not come close, do not cuddle.
  7. Get a complementary and preventive treatment

These are the messages media ought to highlight. By going hyperlocal media can monitor the general populace’s response and write informative stories coming from communities.