Every week, Future Tense shares articles with four international publishers: Letras Libres in Mexico, the Wire in India, Haykal Media in the United Arab Emirates, and Época in Brazil. As coronavirus news has taken over the globe, we thought it would be a good time to hear from our partners about how the news media are handling the coronavirus in their countries, what trends they are seeing around misinformation and censorship on social media, and more. So on Tuesday, Future Tense editorial director Andrés Martinez; Hamoud Almahmoud, the editor-in-chief of Harvard Business Review Arabia, published by Haykal Media; Vasudevan Mukunth, science editor for the Wire in India; and Emilio Rivaud, senior web editor for Letras Libres in Mexico, went on Slack to discuss the coronavirus and online discussion.
Their conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, is below.
Andrés Martinez: Thanks, everyone for joining today, once yours truly sorted out our respective time zones. Future Tense is fortunate to have publishing partners like you around the globe, and I am eager to compare notes on how we see our various audiences sharing information about the coronavirus, an issue that seems tailor-made to explore all that is positive, and all that is alarming, about the immediacy and ubiquity of online info platforms.
I have been reading The Great Influenza by John Barry, an impressive book about the 1918 pandemic, and I am struck by how in the United States, because the deadly flu coincided with our World War I mobilization, there was no mention of it by federal government, no primetime Woodrow Wilson address, nothing, lest it affect wartime morale. Sometimes crises like these are exploited by governments to advance their own agendas, at other times minimized as in the U.S. 1918 case. Vasudevan, how do you see coronavirus playing in India?
Vasudevan Mukunth: Thus far the government response has been uneven … What cases have been identified have been quarantined, but there is no effort to undertake testing for community transmission. The government has been issuing advisories such as inserting a short voice message at the start of every phone call, before it starts ringing, reminding us to wash our hands. But at the same time, just before the outbreak really took off, the government used some far-fetched reasons to suspend access to foreign funds for an important virus research center. The coronavirus outbreak is becoming yet another example of how the country tries to respond to each part of an outbreak instead of developing a cohesive, multisectoral response.
Andrés: That’s really interesting, inserting a short voice message at the start of every phone call. Are public health officials attempting to police the spread of misinformation about the virus on social media in India?
Vasudevan: Well, that’s a bit easier said than done thanks to the scale of India. Truth be told, our media is strongly polarized, has been since around 2014. Many right-wing, pro-government “news” sites have sprung up whose only prerogative seems to be to support the government’s views—and these views include portraying liberals as unpatriotic anti-nationalists. This is a very anti-minority, anti-secular, pro-Hindu government (as the Delhi riots most recently showed). So in this context, there are news sites that are for sure going to play up the government’s line on matters like, say, the support for “alternative medicinal traditions” like Ayurveda and homeopathy to cure COVID-19. In fact, India’s Ministry of AYUSH, whose mandate it is to promote these alternative systems, has been publishing advisories and putting up banners at different places around the country recommending “alternative” treatments, which have been upheld by news sites that think this is just another point of view instead of something that could harm people.
Misinformation has been part of its political agenda, so when the government is tasked with fighting misinformation to curb the spread of a disease, it becomes a bit of a mess.
Andrés: “Alternative treatments” do seem to be a rich mine for mischief in situations like this, and it’s interesting to see how even Facebook is realizing it needs to be more engaged in content moderation on something like this.
Hamoud, when we think of the United Arab Emirates, we think of it as an important global hub, both in terms of Abu Dhabi and Dubai. And, of course, when you think of how the coronavirus spreads, being a hub brings with it its own set of concerns.
Hamoud Almahmoud: The UAE is trying to position itself as a hub to treat the virus. As you may know, the UAE has brought other citizens who were trapped in China to a place called the Humanitarian City, where they can be treated and quarantined. Because of our geography, the Gulf countries have been heavily hit. Saudi Arabia and the UAE are closing doors to many outsiders and shutting down all sorts of public activities, including school.
Vasudevan: The UAE’s press isn’t exactly free. So has there been any government interference with how UAE’s health journalists cover the coronavirus outbreak? Have there been any attempts to, say, make the picture seem rosier than it is? Second, the living conditions of laborers from the Indian subcontinent who went to the Gulf (including the UAE) aren’t very good, and these laborers often live and work in crammed spaces and/or live in densely packed apartments. These are conditions are somewhat more suited to the spread of an infectious disease. How much awareness is there locally about this as an issue?
Hamoud: Media in the UAE is more of a loyal media. I would say that in general, there isn’t much controversy over coverage of the health matter, which is being treated seriously.
Andrés: Emilio, I know that Mexico has experienced one of its most momentous chapters of political activism and mobilization this past week, as women took to the streets, and then struck for a day, to bring attention to sexism and their country’s sad history of violence against women. This is a reminder that something like coronavirus doesn’t take place in a vacuum, but overlaps and coincides with other things going on. (Our U.S. presidential election would be another example.) How do you think the government’s reaction to the virus, and people’s experience of it as a social media phenomenon, is impacted by the fact that it is taking place at this moment when the country is consumed by other issues?
Emilio Rivaud: Well, the coronavirus is coming at a difficult moment for the government. In January, it started rolling out a health care reform, and it hasn’t really run smoothly even without the virus. There have been numerous cases of scarcity of medicines and other scandals that led to protests. So when the first news of the coronavirus came, I think people were predisposed to panic. But the epidemic hasn’t really scaled up here (we have seven cases so far) yet. [Editor’s note: As of Saturday, the number of confirmed cases in Mexico had risen to 41.) So yes, things like the women’s march and strike have garnered more attention.
This has allowed for a calm-before-the-storm situation. Too calm, one might think, since both the government and the general public are largely disregarding the importance of preventive measures. [Editor’s note: This too is beginning to change. On Thursday, Tecnológico de Monterrey, an important private university, moved to online courses to prevent exposure. And the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, the country’s largest public university, said it would begin to cancel massive events and international travels.]
Andrés: This Poynter story provides some interesting stats and examples of misinformation spreading, including cases from India. What are some of the more interesting or outlandish conspiracy theories you have seen around the virus?
Emilio: Well, we have a soap opera actress/singer called Patricia Navidad, also a famous antivaxer, who has tweeted about the coronavirus being engineered by Big Pharma and the “dark elites” to make money. You hear these sort of theories every now and then.
Andrés: And to think her last name is Christmas!
Vasudevan: I think the most outlandish theory I have come across is one that the virus may have been engineered. Part of it was based on an academic article preprinted early this year by researchers at the India Institute of Technology Delhi. I think rumors based on this possibility are still in currency in India at the moment. Spring-boarding off your comment about how this disease overlaps and coincides with a bunch of pre-existing political conditions—the more insidious rumors are the ones combining “good hygiene” and religious bigotry. Two of them in particular are that the “Muslim handshake is less hygienic than the Hindu namaste” and that “COVID-19 is God’s way of signaling that non-vegetarianism is bad because the virus jumped from animals (bats/civets) to humans.”
(And of course there’s the usual Hindutva rubbish about how drinking cow urine can get rid of COVID-19.)
Emilio: Interesting. I heard cocaine cured it too.
Andrés: In India, Bloomberg reported that because of social media claims of a link between chickens and the coronavirus, poultry sales have plunged in the country. Wondering if there are other behavioral changes becoming more widespread as a result of these speculations.
(And to be clear, we are not encouraging readers to hedge with cocaine!)
Vasudevan: I think the most noticeable behavioral changes are in terms of stocking up on hand sanitizers and face masks, and trying to avoid crowded places (especially sites of worship).
Emilio: In Mexico we had the H1N1 influenza outbreak in 2009. Back then, Mexico City basically shut down for a few days, and we gathered some habits that now come in handy: waving instead of handshaking, stockpiling sanitizing gel, and, for some people, buying lots of mouth covers (which, as we know, don’t really keep you safe from the virus).
In Mexico, we have a strong traditional medicine and also a penchant for self-medication. You see a lot of memes talking about how people will fight off the coronavirus with chicken soup, aspirin, herbal infusions, Vaporub, and other common flu remedies. The thing is people here don’t go the doctor unless they are very ill. So one can wonder if this is playing a role in the low number of cases so far detected.
Andrés: I am touching my face as I read this! Are we seeing governments tighten outright censorship, capitalizing on this as an excuse? Hamoud, your roots are in Syria, a country already devastated by years of civil war and strife. Does something like the coronavirus get much attention there, under the circumstances? Or is it exploited by regime?
Hamoud: Yes, it’s a very intense time for journalists and others on social media, as governments dust off old laws to avoid the spread of what they consider misinformation. This is especially true in countries like Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. There’s also a lot of geopolitical finger-pointing, with both of those countries blaming Iran for the pandemic. In terms of Syria, there hasn’t been much discussion of the virus yet, but you have to be worried, given how many people go back and forth across a very porous border with Iran—not just militants in the fight, but also religious people visiting famous shrines.
Vasudevan: In India, the government hasn’t lacked excuses to tighten censorship in the last few years. As you may already know, India is now the title-holder for the longest internet shutdown in history, in Kashmir. Plus since the government introduced the highly controversial Citizenship (Amendment) Act 2019 (unrelated to the outbreak), there have been violence, protests, and censorship across the country on this count alone. So while I personally am not aware of a coronavirus-specific censorship incident, the agents and instruments for overt censorship already exist.
Andrés: We’re touching upon what governments do, and how citizens communicate on social media, but I am also curious about your roles in a drama like this, as editors of responsible media outlets. What are you hearing from your readers in terms of what they expect from you on a subject like this, a subject that is both a sweeping global story but also intimate?
Emilio: We have tried to cover the situation form the start, offering solid pieces on virus science and how prepared the country is for it. It really isn’t our main topic at the moment. I fear that the situation is going to scale up, but for the moment it is calm. There’s a great deal of reporting, in fact, about the humor being deployed against the virus. Someone made a “Coronavirus cumbia,” there are countless memes, and people are mostly having a laugh. This is very akin to the Mexican way of being, I think.
Vasudevan: So there are two parts to this response of what we’re doing as journalists in the face of this challenge. First, we’re using this as an opportunity to dig deeper into how public health care works in India, what it can do better, etc. For example, we have one story being published about how hospital-acquired infections in India are a big problem. The heightened audience attention on public health allows us to commission more stories like this with more ease than usual, so to speak. (We’re almost fully reader-funded, by the way.)
The other part is that the Wire and the Wire Science have maintained a notably anti-establishment stance against the government (the present government is the only government we’ve operated under; we turn 5 this May) and its tacit endorsement of various self-aggrandizing, pseudoscientific beliefs on matters of public health, infrastructure and socio-economic development. So these adversarial habits, so to speak, are also serving us well now.
Andrés: Hamoud mentioned that some countries are blaming Iran for “exporting” disease. Reminds me of how some of our members of Congress have been criticized for referring to virus as the “Wuhan virus” and also of how poor Spain got stuck with the naming rights for the infamous 1918 disease. (Spoiler alert: it’s actually believed to have started in Kansas.) Are all of you referring to this strictly as the coronavirus or COVID-19 or using different terminology? Have you been struck by other variations used by others?
Vasudevan: I think the most common term in India is actually “coronavirus,” presumably because many people think this is the name of this virus and not that it’s a type of a coronavirus. But we (as in the Wire) are switching between “novel coronavirus,” “new coronavirus,” and “SARS-CoV-2.” We used to say “Wuhan coronavirus” as well, but I think after reading the WHO’s note about incidents of racism against Chinese nationals as well as how the mention of “SARS” might give the wrong impression of the viral characteristics of the new coronavirus, I’m sticking to “new coronavirus.”
Andrés: I would love to keep going all afternoon, but I want to be respectful of the fact that it isn’t afternoon where some of you are, but late at night, and all of you have publications to publish. But I can’t thank you enough for taking the time to reflect on what you’ve been seeing with this story, and compare notes with us and each other. I hope we do more of these and in days ahead, and that we can continue to look for ways to broaden and deepen our partnership around these issues. Many thanks!