Don’t blame Covid-19

Alright, I’ve had enough…I have to say something.

As a science journalist and writer, I’ve been keeping an eye on the coronavirus with a mix of fascination and grim satisfaction. Fascination, because such viruses are rare, and grim satisfaction because the blind panic taking hold is what happens when qualified science journalists are cut from the news equation.

Let’s get the science stuff out the way: Firstly, this coronavirus is so new there’s still confusion over what it’s called. The virus itself is called SARS-CoV-2 because it’s related to the SARS coronavirus we saw in 2002-2003. It’s sometimes referred to as the ‘novel coronavirus’, meaning ‘new’, because it was only identified at the end of last year. The World Health Organisation refers to ‘COVID-19’. That’s not the virus, but the disease that develops from the virus – an acute respiratory illness akin to a nasty bout of flu. The title-case ‘Covid-19’ is perfectly acceptable. I prefer it – it’s less ‘shouty’.

Secondly, the virus has no brain, cannot think, and therefore has no purpose. This is an important clarification because the virus has been blamed for closing down schools, cancelling sport events, collapsing markets, and generally spreading panic. Viruses can’t do that, only humans can. So, saying such-and-such event happened “because of the virus”, is giving the virus more credit than it deserves.

Thirdly, any virus is biologically coded to replicate, and it can’t do that effectively if the host dies before the virus has a chance to jump ship. So someone dying directly after contracting a virus is not doing that virus any favours. Viruses come and go, only those that can adapt stick around. HIV is a perfect case in point. Now THAT’S a scary virus.

Fourthly, Covid-19 – the disease caused by the coronavirus – can kill; but then so can flu, and rushing in your car to your doctor to be tested for Covid-19 when you feel a nasty cough coming on.

Knowing this, I’ve watched supermarket shelves empty of toilet rolls, people sneeze into their elbows then ‘elbow-bump’ someone else with the same elbow, and people confidently striding through airports ‘armed’ with face masks they’ve just touched after grabbing the handles of their suitcases they’ve pulled off the conveyor.

Media and consumer gullibility are to blame for the confusion and panic. As I explain to scientists wanting to write for mainstream media, ‘tension gets attention’. But there are subtle ways to do that. Media stories about Covid-19 infections that point to the number of deaths are unequivocally designed to get your attention. The onus is then on you to do the maths and realise, actually, just about everyone survives.

The tone of media reports is key to their translation. Commentators encouraging people to ‘be with your families at this time’, whilst seemingly benign are actually screaming “it’s the end-of-days….a zombie apocalypse….we’re all gonna die…aaaargh!” Breathless phrases like ‘the war on coronavirus’ are designed to hype the situation, and don’t help. And whoever was responsible for the Cape Times billboard shouting ‘Killer Virus’ should be taken outside and shot. It’s not a ‘killer virus’. A ‘killer virus’ would kill you. Every time. It’s why peanuts are not called ‘killer nuts’…except, maybe, by the Cape Times.

Furthermore, figures out of context tell only part of the story; or as I like to say: ‘content is king, context is King Kong’. The ages and states of health of people before they were infected are important. Covid-19 is especially harmful to the elderly and already unhealthy. At the risk of sounding harsh, that’s evolution for you – and that’s from someone shuffling towards retirement age! It’s also why Covid-19 may thrive on cruise ships, which are popular with elderly tourists. The relatively high death toll in Italy could probably be because whereas in most Western cultures elderly people are farmed off to retirement homes or to die alone in draughty apartments, the Italians are more caring, and prefer to keep their ‘nonnas’ close at (now, unfortunately, virus-covered) hand. That, for me, is one of the real tragedies of this pandemic.

Science journalists are specialists in all this stuff. But, more importantly, they’re the critical eye and composed voice for any story claiming to speak for science. If a sub-editor wants to run with “Scientists say coffee gives you cancer!”, the science journalist is the one recommending otherwise, pointing out the research involved pumping massive caffeine overdoses into a dozen rats, and so has no bearing on billions of humans.

Science journalists know that every bit of research is a very small piece in a very big, very complicated puzzle. In all the discordant clutter around Covid-19, they’re the ones searching for the pieces of truth and fitting them together to get the full picture.

With that in mind, now that Covid-19 is here just on the cusp of our flu season, nogal, this is what you should know: South African mainstream news media has few qualified science journalists. Following the 2007/2008 financial crash and the viral growth of social media, science journalists were the first to be culled by major news organisations looking to cut costs. Right now, while those same organisations are scrambling to make sense of what’s happening, social media – that unfettered phalanx of totally unqualified commentators – will largely define the Covid-19 narrative in South Africa.

It’s why someone asked me the other day if it’s true “you can get coronavirus from eating pilchards”, and why someone else told me they’re not concerned because “only white people catch coronavirus”.

So, keep calm, and stay off social media, it’s probably more dangerous than the virus.