02/03/20

Journalism in the time of the coronavirus

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Journalists following the COVID-19 story are at risk of exposing themselves to the coronavirus. Copyright: Image by Andy Leung from Pixabay. This image has been cropped.

Speed read

  • COVID-19 has upset event schedules for many journalists
  • Impossible to tell if you are infected with common flu or COVID-19 as testing is limited
  • Freelancers are worst hit as they have no leave benefits or health cover

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[MANILA] As the threat of a COVID-19 pandemic becomes closer to reality, media practitioners must face up to the possibility that they may end up being more than non-participant observers.  

The disease, which has killed over 2,800 people and infected more than 82,000 mostly in China where the virus is believed to have originated, has met two of the three factors for a pandemic — rapid sickness and death and sustained person-to-person transmission. The third criteria, worldwide spread of the virus, seems like just a matter of time.

“Those in the media face a direct threat to their health and lives as well”

Joel Adriano, SciDev.Net Asia & Pacific Regional Coordinator

To prevent or halt global spread, several countries have imposed travel bans to and from China and now South Korea, the hotspots of the virus. Many events around the world have been cancelled or postponed indefinitely.

For a journalist, this means fewer events to cover. Particularly impacted are those covering sports beats as many schedules have been called off. There is even a chance that the 2020 Olympics in Japan might be moved to a later date. And then there is the ripple effect on those on the technology beats and product launches because of the disruption caused to the global supply chain. Many events have been dropped with no fresh dates set.

Those in the media face a direct threat to their health and lives as well. Many developing countries lack the resources to test and identify those infected with the virus and put up with the nagging fear that the virus may already be circulating in the local population. For instance, it is hard to believe that Cambodia and Laos, which border China, have remained COVID-free. The same is true for Indonesia where a large population is exposed to tourists flying in from China and headed for destinations like Bali.

Over the past month or so, many journalists on the science beat in the Philippines have been down with the ‘flu. And that includes our columnist, Crispin Maslog, and this writer. While there is a test for coronavirus, the actual testing and reagents cost hundreds of dollars to administer individually according to a source. And the results are not reliable as there have been instances of false negatives. “So, you have to be really smart in selecting who to test,” one doctor explained. “Only those with a history of travel to highly infected areas or exposure to those who came from such areas will undergo basic tests.”  

It is likely the reason why the number of confirmed cases is stuck at three in the Philippines. Authorities made most of the testing during the early days after the confirmation of the outbreak in China and on people flying in from Wuhan. As the flights got cancelled, the numbers of people from high risk areas also came down.

As for Maslog and myself, we will never know for sure what we were infected with. We may never find out what kind of flu it was and whether COVID-19 is circulating locally since sick people aren’t being tested for it.  According to the PSA Philippines Consultancy Inc., as of February 24, the Philippines’ Department of Health has tested just 516 people — nowhere comparable to South Korea’s 27,852.

Freelancer writers are the worst-hit since they have neither health insurance nor leave benefits and need to be out in the field often. And that adds to extra expenses such as working with facemasks and sticking to the safer and therefore costlier eating places to grab a quick bite.

For those in the media, it might be a good idea to see productivity can be maximised while working remotely. Online press coverage needs to be seriously considered to minimise human contact and exposure and enable writers to carry on even while confined to bed.  
 
This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Asia & Pacific desk.

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