fusion medical animation rnr8D3FNUNY unsplash

A cultural and sociological bias may have prevented some media, including BBC news online, from adequately exploring the West’s preparedness for Covid-19. Now that we face the uncertainty of further waves of Covid, not to mention the purported increased likelihood of future pandemics, what lessons can be learnt?

Pre-pandemic discourse

We have recently become accustomed to media scrutiny and political point-scoring around the UK’s dismal performance in dealing with Covid-19. However, it is instructive to look back at the time before. Between the end of January, when the WHO declared a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC) and early March when it announced a global pandemic, some Western media took surprisingly little interest in our own preparedness.

A good illustration of this is that across 238 Covid related BBC news articles published in February, there is just one use of the word ventilator(s). Meanwhile, PPE hardly gets a mention in relation to the UK health service. It was a face mask shortage for dentists (due to a run on them along with hand sanitizer and toilet paper) that was the main story and not potential shortages in hospitals and care homes. This is despite the WHO’s warnings after SARS, MERS and Ebola, that “highly pathogenic coronaviral diseases” (other than MERS or SARS) could be the next great international health crisis.

Keep calm and carry on

My study (pending publication) of BBC News online coverage from this pre-pandemic period suggests that the BBC helped construct a narrative around our overall preparedness and the unlikelihood of a UK epidemic. News framing is built on assumptions, and a big assumption made by BBC newsrooms in this period seems to have been that there would not be a  repeat of the equipment shortages or suitable health facilities that had occurred in other parts of the world here in the UK.

The tone was overwhelmingly positive on the BBC, with descriptions of the “full machinery of planning and coordination” being activated. Furthermore, the emphasis on the operation of infection control areas rather than home isolation suggested that the virus could and would be contained. The message from the Government and NHS, repeated again and again in BBC online news articles, was that the “NHS was well able to cope” and the threat was compared to seasonal flu.

Pandemic is just a word

This construction of a reality of Western expertise and preparedness in contrast to the struggles of governments overseas is highly consistent with the Western media coverage of SARS in 2003-4. So is the apparent reluctance to discuss policy options and how the UK’s hospitals and care homes would respond to significant case numbers of critically ill people. The potential status of the outbreak becoming a global pandemic was the source of considerable speculation. The BBC itself seemingly redefined pandemic from being a disease that spreads across a large number of countries and affects a large number of people, to a colloquial term, or as health and science correspondent James Gallagher put it: “pandemic is just that – a word”. Although the BBC helped stimulate this debate it largely structured its coverage in such a way as to support the WHO’s cautious approach.

Fear of a foreign virus

There was a constant flow of human-interest stories that featured Western expatriates and tourists trapped in China or on cruise ships. There were 39 articles that directly mention the Diamond Princess, the cruise ship carrying 78 British passengers. The repatriation of these passengers to Arrow Park hospital in England was a major news story. Repatriation and evacuation from the danger of being in South Asia to the safety of the West is one of the dominant news frames throughout February. Not only did cruise ships provide ample opportunity for the BBC to domesticate the story with UK victims but also reiterated the frame of containment from a foreign disease. These “floating petri dishes” symbolised the fear of contagion from China and the handling of their quarantine was the source of much criticism of foreign governments including Japan, China and Cambodia. There was a far greater concern for the consequences of China’s failure to contain the virus than there was around our own preparations for its spread.

Othering of the virus

Covid-19 was othered by the BBC – it is something that happens over there not here, it belonged to them and not us. Despite the exponential spread, that had overtaken the impact of SARS back at the end of January and which had taken hold in Continental Europe by the end of February, newsrooms got stuck in a news frame that focused on the international situation and our ability to stop the virus at our borders. Our own capacity to implement the kinds of medical response China had been widely praised for was largely assumed to be a far less relevant story. This remained the case even as Italy reached crisis point. Instead, in the UK, the focus was mainly on personal responsibility through handwashing and coughing into your elbow. A trans-Atlantic news frame, perhaps driven by libertarian political instincts in both the White House and Westminster, chose not to emphasise the possible need for major state interventions, like mass testing, contact tracing and lockdown.

Nothing to learn from Africa

Africa was largely absent from the narrative despite the high volume of air traffic between China and countries like Ethiopia and Kenya, whose screening of incoming visitors was minimal and whose health services are some of the least developed in the world. The BBC does not make a single mention of country names including, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Tanzania during this period, whereas South Korea features in 68 articles, China in 199 and Italy in 40. Perhaps countries with less movement into rich countries, like the UK and the USA were simply of less interest? This fits development studies theories that suggest African nations are perceived as corrupt and incompetent and their communities invisible. Hence the weak demand for their knowledge and learning, including the largely successful containment of Ebola in West Africa in 2013-16.

Culturally and sociologically rooted news

News frames are deeply sociologically and culturally rooted and it was not until well after the WHO declared the pandemic that Covid was reframed in the UK media and our own preparedness became the central story. To its credit, the BBC has been at the forefront of the subsequent push to hold policy elites to account for earlier decisions.  Covid-19 has deeply undermined theories around the West’s exaggeration of the threat of a pandemic and perceived northern dominance in global health governance.  No one can expect the media to predict the future. However, the pre-pandemic coverage does expose a deeply ingrained set of assumptions, channeled by the mass media, about Western preparedness and resilience in the face of global health emergencies.

James Georgalakis