Sick and tired of the sickness – some media try to downplay the pandemic

Why is there such a mismatch between that media coverage, and the reality of a virus that's inflicting more suffering and death than ever before?
Why is there such a mismatch between New Zealand media coverage, and the reality of a virus that's inflicting more suffering and death than ever before? Image: RNZ

By Hayden Donnell, RNZ Mediawatch producer

Covid has now killed around 1700 people in New Zealand, but much of our news reporting and commentary has focused on how we’re moving on from the pandemic. Why is there such a mismatch between that media coverage, and the reality of a virus that’s inflicting more suffering and death than ever before?

On her show last week, Newstalk ZB’s Heather du Plessis-Allan made a momentous announcement in an almost blithe, off-hand manner.

“The pandemic’s over for all intents and purposes but we’re still having to deal with this nonsense. Isn’t that ultimately why we’re feeling miserable because we all want a break? If I was in government what I’d do right now is ‘green setting guys, go for your life, party party, whatever’. Just for the mental break of it.”

The announcement that the pandemic is over would have been news to the families of the eight people reported to have died with covid-19 in New Zealand that day.

But du Plessis-Allan is far from an outlier in wanting to place a still raging pandemic in the rearview mirror.

Recently a senior Stuff executive sent staff a memo telling them their audience is “over covid” and has “actively moved on from covid content”.

It implored them to find cracker non-covid stories on topics including cons, crime, and safety, the cost of living, NZ culture, and stuff everyone is talking about.

Much wider group
Stuff’s audience is part of a much wider group that’s actively moving on from covid.

National leader Christopher Luxon just returned from a whirlwind overseas tour with the news that most people he met were no longer even talking about covid.

“It’s interesting to me I’ve just come back from Singapore, Ireland, and the UK. In most of those places we didn’t have a single covid conversation. In places like Ireland there’s no mask wearing at all.”

Luxon is right. Many places around the world have dropped their covid restrictions.

But even if we’re determined to ignore it, covid has remained stubbornly real, and is continuing to cause equally real harm.

In the United States, hospitalisations and reinfections are rising with the increasing prevalence of the BA.5 strain of omicron.

In the UK, about 13,000 hospital beds are currently occupied by covid patients. Hospitals are dealing with staff absences, exhaustion, persistent backlogs and problems discharging patients, and the UK government is considering bringing back restrictions if the situation gets any worse.

Same story as here
If that all sounds familiar, it’s because pretty much the exact same story is playing out here.

Association of General Surgeons president Rowan French delivered some dire news to RNZ’s Morning Report about hospitals’ current troubles with scheduling elective surgeries.

“It’s the worst I’ve ever seen it,” he said. “We don’t say that lightly but I think it is the worst we’ve ever seen it, particularly with respect to our ability to treat our patients’ elective conditions.”

French said those issues were exacerbated by a wave of covid-19 and winter flu.

Covid patients were taking up a lot of the beds that would normally be used by people recovering from surgery, and he couldn’t see an end in sight to the crisis.

There’s a jarring mismatch between that kind of interview and the concurrent harping about the need to move on from covid.

That’s producing cognitive dissonance, not just in the public, but among media commentators, some of whom are now bobbling between berating our minimal remaining efforts to mitigate covid-19 and lamenting the damage being caused by the uncontrolled spread of the virus.

Mental oscillations
In some cases, these mental oscillations can take place in mere hours.

On the morning of July 6, Newstalk ZB Wellington host Nick Mills had harsh words for the epidemiologists urging caution over covid.

“Michael Baker, let us get on with our lives. You go back to your lab. Do some intelligent work. Get paid truckloads of money doing it, and live in an extremely flash house. But for me, I don’t want to hear from you anymore. I want to get on with my life and our life.”

On du Plessis-Allan’s panel show The Huddle later that day, he had a different message about the severity of the latest wave.

“I’m absolutely terrified because it could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back,” he said. “If we have to go back [to a red setting] – and it will all be based on hospitals gonna have to be overcrowded — these numbers are terrifying.”

Maybe if Nick Mills had listened more closely to Professor Michael Baker, his research on BA.5 wouldn’t have come as such a nasty surprise.

To be fair to these hosts, their contradictory approaches to covid are pretty relatable.

Sick of the sickness
Even without any hard data to hand, it’s safe to say many people are sick of the sickness, and some are prepared to live in a state of suspended disbelief to act like that’s the case.

But covid isn’t over, and now many leading experts are saying it may never be.

Last week The Project commissioned a poll which showed 38 percent of people agree with those experts. They believe covid is here for good.

Afterward presenter Kanoa Lloyd quizzed epidemiologist Dr Tony Blakely about whether those respondents were right.

“It’s possible,” he said. “It’s rolling on. Remember influenza in 1918, we still get influenza every year. This is a coronavirus. It could keep coming up every year.”

Dr Blakely is among a number of epidemiologists and healthcare workers who have gone to the media lately to deliver the message that there is still a pandemic on.

On last weekend’s episode of Newshub Nation, the aforementioned Professor Michael Baker compared covid to the “inconvenient truth” of climate change — a global threat that demands real change and ongoing action to mitigate.

Common sense safety
He went on to link covid precautions to another common sense safety measure.

“If you go out when you have this infection and infect your friends and family, you are going to be killing some people — just like drinking and driving,” he said.

At The Spinoff, microbiologist Siouxsie Wiles stuck with the driving metaphor, imploring people to make popping on a mask as natural as clicking in your seatbelt.

This recent flurry of cautious messaging stands in stark contrast to much of the media coverage over the last few months.

Despite the fact 10 to 20 people per day have been dying of covid-19, that is had a muted response outside of the pro-forma coverage of the Ministry of Health’s 1pm press releases.

When covid-19 has been covered, the death toll has usually been superseded in the news by complaints from businesses about the few restrictions that remain.

Maybe that’s not such a surprise. News organisations have a powerful commercial incentive to give their customers what they want, and as Stuff’s executive said, audiences have moved on.

Like drunk party guest
But, like a drunk party guest at 3am, coronavirus does not care that you’re tired of it and you want it to leave.

A month ago, Newsroom’s Marc Daalder made that point in a prescient piece headlined “Covid isn’t over, it’s just getting started“.

He said the media needed to adjust from covering covid as a crisis to seeing it as an ongoing concern like the road toll or crime.

“It’s no longer temporary. It’s here to stay with us. And I don’t think that journalists have really figured out how to cover it as a daily issue, just like we cover all of the other daily issues that are really problematic,” he said.

“In some respects, it’s a bit bigger because it has a much more serious burden in terms of deaths and hospitalisations and long covid than something like the road toll, but just because it’s not a temporary crisis anymore, doesn’t mean that we should be ignoring it.”

Daalder said reporters could reorientate their coverage, writing more human interest stories on issues like the impact of long covid, and looking forward at how the virus and the fight against it will evolve.

“I think we are poorly served by media coverage, after the peak of the first omicron wave, in which there was no looking forward to what’s going to be happening in the short term or the long term.

Omicron peaked … and then?
“There was just this all this focus on what would happen when omicron peaked, and then it did, and, and nothing filled the void after that. And so I think it’s quite natural for people to assume that covid is over.”

Journalists could also apply more pressure to the government over the continuing levels of preventable suffering and death being caused by cmicron’s spread, Daalder said.

He has advocated for the return of the alert level system, which he believes was much more simple and comprehensible than the traffic light system implemented late last year.

“There’s not really very much accountability journalism that looks at holding the government accountable for essentially abandoning vulnerable people to the whims of the virus,” he said.

“You have this sort of very strange juxtaposition in the [parliamentary] press gallery where the covid minister will be asked by one person: ‘Are you concerned about BA.5? It’s starting to spread in New Zealand. Should we be increasing our restrictions?’

“And then in the next breath, the question is ‘Why aren’t we in green? When will we ever get to green?’.

Better balancing
“I’m not sure that either of those get to the heart of the present issue, which is that the current settings aren’t aren’t even aligned with a non-BA.5 world.”

Daalder said news organisations should find ways to balance their commercial incentives and the public interest role of journalism when it comes to important, but not always clickable, stories like covid or climate change.

“There’s an extent to which you should follow what audiences want. And you shouldn’t necessarily be trying to force something down their throats that they don’t want.

“But with something like covid, where it’s such a huge, important thing that’s happening, and that’s going to keep happening, regardless of whether you write about it or not.

“I think that’s where you know that that mission of journalism to tell the truth really comes in and overrides maybe some of the audience imperatives.”

This article is republished under a community partnership agreement with RNZ.

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