An empty airport. Deserted streets. A body left unattended on the sidewalk while figures in ghostly white hazmat suits walk by. Images from Wuhan paint a disturbing picture of plague and death at risk of spreading across the globe.
Chinese police detained a Hong Kong reporter sent to Wuhan to report on the outbreak, forcing them to delete their footage and turn in their phones. A report in the Japan Times quotes Chinese Supreme Court Justice Tang Xinghua complaining about the heavy-handedness of the government’s information crackdown.
Images and stories of the outbreak are splashed all over western media sources, but what are we not being told? Behind the breathless coverage, what’s the disturbing reality CNN won’t report? The real story of this outbreak doesn’t become apparent until mortality rates are considered. It’s the rate of death from coronavirus after it spreads beyond Wuhan that places this incident in its proper context.
Beyond Wuhan and the surrounding Hubei province, mortality rates from coronavirus infection are hovering around .3%. That’s at the low end of normal annual mortality rates from seasonal flu in China (.1-.7%). Put another way, once people have access to appropriate medical treatment, especially in China’s major modern urban centers, coronavirus is pretty much just another flu variant. For a bit more perspective, the annual mortality rate from the flu in the US is a little over .1%. About 12,000-60,000 Americans die from influenza-related symptoms every year. Death rates from coronavirus in developed countries have so-far held steady at 0%. Overall, globally, including Wuhan, this virus outbreak appears to be responsible for a total of 300 deaths. As of February 2, 2020, only a single person has died outside China.
What we’re not being told is that this flu outbreak is a local phenomenon, a product of unsanitary conditions, poor access to health care, and state repression in a single city. Among the 11 million residents of Wuhan, somewhere between 14,000-75,000 have contracted the virus, resulting the current death toll of about 300. Beneath the breathless headlines hides the strange and somewhat puzzling reality that this is an ordinary, administrative public health challenge, with no meaningful implications for the wider world.
More virulent than the Black Plague is the spread of panic in our media ecosystem. A global, 24-hour media infrastructure built around the commercial demands of the entertainment industry is a cancer growing on democracy. There is no penalty for being wrong. We’re all still waiting for the global Ebola outbreak, a panic that rescued Republicans from losing the Senate in 2014.
Remember that story cited above, about a Chinese Judge? You’ll find it splayed across the pages of Murdoch’s News Corp proxies around the world. And it’s being reposted on fake news outlets like Breitbart. Run a search to find this “Supreme Court Judge” by the name of Tang Xinghua and you find no other sources.
There are no judges by that name on the website for the Chinese Supreme Court. News Corp’s source was a blog post in Chinese on WeChat by someone calling themselves “Supreme People’s Court.” The author is actually a blogger for a local court in Beijing. His statement wasn’t part of any court ruling, but a long personal post on the dangers of misinformation. Word for word, here’s how Murdoch’s fake news engine mischaracterized this blog post:
A too-harsh crackdown on online rumors during China’s deadly viral epidemic had undermined public trust, the country’s top court said Wednesday, in a highly rare rebuke of the police force.
Don’t hold your breath waiting for a retraction.
Like bricks in a wall, these small distortions and misrepresentations pile up. Eyeballs on screens, attracted by images presented out of context pull in advertising dollars while the public is betrayed. On the bright side, QAnon followers are being urged by influential posters to protect themselves by drinking Mineral Miracle Solution, a concoction that amounts to home-brewed bleach. Evolution may yet race to our rescue.
Why do we love a plague? These disaster images cross the streams, combining our neurotic fears of illness with our deep-seated racism, turning everything foreign into a creepy, dirty pestilential menace. Reports of silent death delivered from exotic corners of the world confirm our cherished biases, filling us with a lustful horror. Broadcasters and advertisers understand. They spread the infection.
What’s the dark secret our mainstream news outlets aren’t telling us about this disease outbreak? Americans are being menaced by a brain-eating virus, but it isn’t coming from abroad.