Without GPS and satellite technology, maps from the middle ages contained large blank spots representing unknown regions of the world. I’m reminded of these ancient maps when I watch the television reporting of extreme weather events. The reporter stands in from of a large map of the United States bordered by huge blank spaces to the north and south. Those of us with any sense of direction know they represent Canada and Mexico, but on the weather map they are just a gray blob.
Much of this extreme weather is fueled by climate change, but you’ll never hear the reporter acknowledge that. And these same weather patterns impact our neighbors to the north and south just as adversely, but you’ll never hear the reporter acknowledge that either. That’s because our media is very nationalistic, even though they would deny it. Nonetheless, this same nationalism influences how the media reports on worldwide health issues. I reflected on this issue in my book, The Case for Universal Health Care, about the Ebola outbreak of 2014. Thousands of Africans died of the disease, but American television only covered the epidemic after a few Americans contracted it. In total, eleven Americans contracted Ebola, most were health workers, and two died from the disease. However, the way the media covered the problem, you would think all 325 million of us would contract it with the potential of hundreds of thousands if not millions of Americans dying. A real-life zombie apocalypse.
Now, American media is handling the Corona virus in much the same way. I don’t want to diminish the risks associated with the illness if you get it. However, with good health prevention techniques, it is unlikely it will be a serious threat in the U.S.
Bacteria are one-celled organisms and the majority are benign or even helpful, such as the gut bacteria that helps us digest food. Some though may cause illness and when that happens antibiotics can be used to treat the infection. Viruses are micro-organisms that attach to our cells and unlike bacteria most are harmful. Antibiotics cannot be used to treat a viral infection. The primary means of treating a virus is through a vaccination that allows our cells to build up immunity to a particular strain of virus. Both bacteria and viruses are living examples of evolution in progress. All living things mutate and when those mutations help the organism survive, such as adapting to an antibiotic, the mutated strain has a greater chance of survival. That’s why researchers are constantly trying to develop new antibiotics and vaccines.
There are several different strains of the Corona virus including one that causes the common cold. 2019-nCoV is the Corona virus causing the outbreak in China. Because it is a fairly new strain there currently is no vaccination against it. The infection typically appears as a bad cold, but with cough, fever, shortness of breath, and in rare cases, it can lead to severe respiratory problems, kidney failure, and ultimately death. Because 2019-nCoV is primarily a respiratory disease it is mainly spread when an infected person sneezes or coughs, which is why you see photos of just about everyone in Wuhan China wearing a face mask. Like all viral infections, regularly washing your hands (thoroughly) and covering your mouth and nose when coughing and sneezing, can greatly reduce transmission. And if you’re sick, stay home rather than risk spreading the disease. (Of course that’s not easy to do in corporate America where millions of workers are hourly employees who do not get paid if they take time off when they’re sick.)
The outbreak in Wuhan China is receiving a lot of media coverage because, like all air borne viral infections, they spread more easily in high population areas where there is more opportunity for close contact with other people; Wuhan has a population of more than 11 million, making it an urban center about the size of New York City. So far, about 14,000 people have been diagnosed with the disease (although some cases may be due to other viral infections) with about 300 deaths. That’s a fairly high number of cases for a city that size, particularly for such a short period of time, but probably less than the number of New Yorkers who contact pneumonia, the common cold, and the flu in a month.
So while we need to take this outbreak seriously, it is not as apocalyptic as the evening news is making it. Let’s face it, scary stories sell. And if an American should come back from China with the virus, our media will focus on that one individual rather than the thousands of Chinese citizens struggling with it a continent away.
Conversely, American media will continue to ignore the many health problems that afflict us right now. For example, the “CDC estimates that influenza has resulted in between 9 million – 45 million illnesses, between 140,000 – 810,000 hospitalizations and between 12,000 – 61,000 deaths annually since 2010.” You read that last figure correctly; for the 2017-2018 flu season, the CDC estimates that at least 61,000 Americans died from the flu and the number may be considerably higher once all the data is evaluated. Where is media coverage of this epidemic?
Each year the CDC and CMS do their best to predict which influenza strain will be dominant in the coming season and try to develop a vaccine against it. And yet, in spite of encouragement to get a flu shot, millions of Americans refuse; some don’t like getting shots (hey sissies, it doesn’t hurt) and some are afraid of side effects (which typically consists of redness and soreness at the site of the injection). Worse, millions of Americans forego getting their flu shot because they can’t afford health care insurance, or if they have insurance, they can’t afford the copays. So, while the flu is truly dangerous, spreading to millions of Americans and causing tens of thousands of deaths, it gets short shrift from network news organizations.
Now I’m just being speculative here, but I also see something besides nationalism in the reporting of Ebola and Corona virus compared to the flu, reflecting xenophobia at best, racism at worst. Ebola was scary not only because it had a how mortality rate but also because it was a disease of people who look different than us – black Africans. Similarly, 2019-nCoV is scary because it’s also a disease associated with a different ethnic group – Asians. Neither viral outbreak was, nor is a serious health risk for Americans in our homeland, yet both have received significant airtime on the evening news. Conversely, although the flu is highly contagious, with high rates of infection and mortality. it receives little media coverage.
Medieval maps of the world had large areas containing blank
spaces because they were unexplored, and little was known about these
areas. Similarly, Americans know little
about health and health care because our media keeps us uninformed and
misinformed. Considering that lives can
literally depend on access to health information, that’s not a good thing.
 According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, considered a reliable source when it comes to health care data, about 27.9 million Americans are without health insurance: