Coronavirus & Bias: Media Responsibility in a Time of Crisis
The New York Times recently published an article on new research that indicates that the majority of COVID-19 cases in New York originally came from Europe. At a virtual workshop for public health students organized by the student group Advocates for Asian American Health (AAAH) at Columbia Mailman School of Public Health, participants discussed how major news outlets covered the U.S. coronavirus outbreak in early March. News outlets such as Forbes and the New York Post chose pictures of Asian individuals in surgical masks to accompany their news coverage, and the New York Times published an article entitled "Coronavirus in N.Y.: Manhattan Woman Is First Confirmed Case in State" with a picture taken in the Chinatown section of Queens. The image has since been changed to a picture of traffic in New York City.
Since news broke that the coronavirus has been circulating in the United States, reports of anti-Asian discrimination have risen dramatically alongside declining sales at Asian-owned restaurants. The website Stop AAPI Hate created by the Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council, received over 1,100 reports of coronavirus-related discrimination in just two weeks. Across the country, Asian Americans, often an invisible "model minority", or a group perceived as being particularly successful, are reckoning with the visibility of becoming the face of a global outbreak.
As public health students, we have learned how history repeats itself: pandemics and virus outbreaks often lead to the stigmatization of marginalized populations. As Columbia Public Health professor Dr. Merlin Chowkwanyun has said, this rhetoric is not new: over centuries, “people perpetuated the ideas that immigrants were virulent vectors of disease.” This took place during the 1876 smallpox outbreak in San Francisco, which was swiftly followed by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. In the early 1980s, Haitians were blamed for the HIV epidemic and banned from donating blood.
Attempts to control disease are often linked to the control of diseased (or disease-suspected) people. In this, we ignore the complex social factors that drive disease transmission and hold scapegoats responsible instead.
The initial coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic racialized the virus as something that was Chinese and foreign. In doing so, it simultaneously obscured the actual transmission of the disease and perpetuated harmful myths about who bore responsibility for the crisis. Although public health officials may disagree over the efficacy of travel restrictions during a pandemic, the vulnerability of the U.S. health system has been known for years. In the early days of COVID-19, while the U.S. focused on implementing travel bans and quarantining foreigners, we should have worked on strengthening our public health system, disseminating reliable testing kits, securing adequate quantities of personal protective equipment, and ensuring that the most vulnerable Americans had access to healthcare.
Media outlets have a responsibility to disseminate evidence-based information at all times, and especially during a public health crisis. They must do so without falling back on provocative narratives of a foreign contagion that sow fear and distrust. It is time to create new narratives of life during a pandemic, narratives that highlight community care and mutual assistance, and that strengthen our trust in government, science, and each other. During a highly infectious pandemic, when we are only as healthy as our nearest neighbor, the health of all of our communities may depend on it.
Ava Kamb a 2021 MPH candidate in the Department of Epidemiology. She is the President of the Mailman School student group Advocates for Asian American Health (AAAH).