It may be futile to make sense of what is really happening in the world of COVID-19, but one segment of society seems to have already made its mind up.
On May 24th, several thousand young American’s grabbed a beer and went for a swim in the beautiful Lake of the Ozarks in Missouri. The party, which took place in a chlorinated pool on Memorial Day weekend, caused global media outrage. CNN’s S.E. Cupp proclaimed, ‘My God’ on Twitter and Fox News commentator Brian Kilmeade proclaimed, ‘It destroys my argument that we are reacting responsibly as a country”.
As it happens (as of the day of the pool party), the State of Missouri had registered 686 deaths from COVID-19 – in a State of more than six million residents (around 0.01143%). Only one of those who attended the party subsequently tested positive for the virus despite media outlets predicting a spike in the hundreds.
Whilst the young and presumably mostly healthy revellers in Missouri may have just been lucky, it’s worth taking a step back and pondering on the divide between how the media articulates the threat and how society has responded. And, what role has the media had on policymaking? As of the date of this blog post, almost all countries appear to have gone past the ‘peak’ number of infections and deaths with or by the virus – a critical difference almost entirely ignored in media reporting. Despite the peak being behind us, a cursory glance eastwards to where the pandemic began, might be cause for concern.
The media certainly hasn’t missed the opportunity to shock. The Daily Express headline on 15th June read, ‘China lockdown: Beijing closes 10 more neighbourhoods after terrifying coronavirus spike.’ The paper reported that China is engaged in a ‘desperate attempt’; to contain the spread of new infections after cases were found (and directly linked to) a wholesale food market in the Haidian district. The terrifying spike the Daily Express is talking about relates to 79 new infections over four days. Is this a blip? Or the start of a new wave that will kill thousands?
It would be a fair guess that most media outlets on planet earth have run with the story. The BBC talks of ’36 new cases’, The Guardian says that China has detected its highest number of daily coronavirus cases ‘in months’ in a ‘warning’ of the difficulties of avoiding a resurgence of the pandemic, ‘as Europe prepared to open more borders and loosen restrictions this week’.
Is this reporting dispassionate and moderate? According to the Chinese authority’s official statistics, which are backed up by the World Health Organisation, 4,634 people have died with or from COVID-19 in China, whose population is 1.4 billion. Each and every life lost as a direct or indirect consequence of being infected by the virus is a personal tragedy and the way in which many have died is appalling. We can, however, take comfort in the way in which scientists and policymakers have responded with funding for R&D. The world’s best and brightest like blood clots, which have been attributed to a significant portion of deaths.
The human tragedy cannot and should not, however, leave the media and society incapable of analysing the facts in a methodical way. In China so far, 0.0003% of the nation’s entire population has died either directly or indirectly of COVID-19.
Fear of a second wave is undoubtedly underpinning policy decisions in the UK. Despite almost universal acceptance amongst the scientific community and national governments around the world that a social distance of one metre is sufficient (in addition to face masks in public spaces), Boris Johnson is sticking with the two-metre rule. The Sun reported the findings of a new World Health Organisation study, which states that one metre apart is enough to significantly slash the risk of catching coronavirus.
Despite this, Downing Street insists that there will be ‘no chances for now.’ Other recent studies – including a systematic review and meta-analysis in the respected Lancet magazine, suggest that in reality nothing can provide complete protection – but that face masks can reduce the spread by up to 85%. Again, there is no suggestion that lockdown can eradicate the risk.
The awfulness of the quandary that governments find themselves in is perhaps summed up in the following statements quoted in The Guardian’:
“The meat sellers have had to close. This disease is really scary,” a fruit and vegetable trader told Agence France-Presse at another central Beijing market.
“As long as you wear a face mask, it should be fine,” said a shopper, Song Weiming. “Anyway, I have to buy food, right?”
Of course, there remain more questions than answers: is a spike an unavoidable reality? How many infections in the community are actually life-threatening (compared to infections in older people in hospitals who subsequently died?) – and if young people at parties are (seemingly) safe to go about their business, did the lockdown really make much of a difference? Should the focus have been on directing resources towards protecting at-risk groups rather than closing down the world economy?
And is the media being irresponsible or just telling it how it is? If we are to face a second wave – or a ‘spike’ – it is likely that many in Parliament will wish to proceed with a more nuanced response that balances the need for economies to grow, the need for people to move around freely and the safety of those who are patently at risk.
Do our governments have the gumption to act as leaders – or will they dance to the tune of the media? And, should 36 new cases be called a ‘terrifying coronavirus spike’, when most of us accept that COVID-19 will be with us for some time to come – and that outbreaks are destined to happen – at least until a universally available and highly effective vaccine is deployed to the world’s 7+ billion inhabitants.
This brings us to the issue of personal responsibility. It is, judging by what is currently happening around the world, futile to try to stop young people from living their lives. On June 13th, anything between 4,000 and 6,000 young people attended ‘illegal’ raves in Greater Manchester. The Independent reported that ‘police officers were met with violence from attendees of the Carrington rave, with items thrown and a squad car being vandalised.
Deputy Labour leader and MP for Ashton-under-Lyne, Angel Rayner tweeted: “Those who attended put themselves and their loved ones at risk. [Completely] irresponsible.” She went on to say how “A lot of effort went into online events this weekend across [Greater Manchester]. Those who attended should be ashamed of themselves. My local area now has to deal with the aftermath.”
Further south, tens of thousands of Black Lives Matter protestors and counter-protestors convened with no regard for social distancing in central London to stand literally shoulder-to-shoulder to vocalise their respective social and cultural concerns. Right across the United States, hundreds of thousands of teenagers, young adults, and (perhaps) brave older people hit the streets for consecutive weekends to riot, march, demonstrate, and rub shoulders. Ergo Hong Kong in light of the Chinese imposition of new security laws that activists believe increases the likelihood that China will crack down on political freedoms. It is clear that for millions of young people, emboldened perhaps by the fact they are exceptionally unlikely to die from COVBID-19, are putting their future security and wellbeing ahead of a legal mandate to social distance.
Whilst there are many questions, we know one thing for sure: a great many young people have cast aside social distancing and concern about the pandemic – perhaps viewing it as less important than politics or partying. We did not see spikes from the many Memorial Day weekend parties that took place across the United States but perhaps we will from the political protests. It seems, however, academic. No matter what anybody has to say – spike or spin – our planet’s youth have taken the matter of COVID-19 and their own social and economic futures into their own hands.