The media is fuelling fear over an impending summer wave
Each season now comes with a new variant of Covid alarmism, fuelling media clickbait and ranging from the hyperbolic to the hypothetical.
According to the Guardian, the UK is “nearly flying blind” into a Covid wave this autumn. A summer spike is expected, by the estimation of the BBC. The New York Times tells us that “Covid didn’t take a summer vacation” and that it is “time for a refresher” on self-protection. Cases are up 55% in New York City, warns the New York Post, while the LA Times this week advocates a return to the wearing of masks.
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Each new mutation (the latest is EG.5.1 or “Eris”) brings with it a fresh wave of media attention. We are reminded to maintain precautions indefinitely: boosters, disinfecting door knobs, N95 respirators and, lest we forget, paying attention to indoor airflow before deciding on a restaurant.
Yet these same media articles also tell us that Covid continues to be mild with no change in severity, making it harder and harder to distinguish from the common cold. The newest Eris variant mostly causes a sore throat and runny nose, and yet the seasonal media cycle of respiratory alarmism continues.
The public is encouraged to follow these viral variants like football matches, watching the scoreboard and adjusting their safety paraphernalia accordingly. But what is driving all this media hype?
It was clear during the pandemic that the press struggled to communicate uncertainty, instead maximising fear and causing moral panics. In this context, basic science communication standards were often poor, and this is reflected in the media framing of each new variant.
New technologies also play a role. Genomic sequencing, digital technologies and publicly accessible databases provide an illusion of omniscience and demand for real-time data. Genomic data, in particular, is responsible for the never-ending Greek acronyms and sub-acronyms. Last week, 17% of Covid cases in the US were, so we are told, due to the new Eris variant.
But genomic surveillance is not like weather forecasting. It tells us little to nothing about changes in disease severity. It is labour-intensive to track Covid cases, not something we do with the flu. Yet each new variant or reported percentage jump in cases precipitates a new media wave.
The public likes to consume Covid news, which has consistently been associated with declines in mental health. Fear of the virus has also been vastly exaggerated by the majority of the public, and has shown to be associated with political identity in the US. This has fuelled the development of a new diagnostic category: Covidphobia. Note the young American hipsters with N95 respirators in European airports this summer.
All of this makes more sense when we appreciate the continued resistance to the concept of herd immunity. A Washington Post article about the Eris variant claims that “the coronavirus has not disappeared. With the advent of successful vaccinations and better social management, however, it has waned.” As with most mainstream articles there is nothing about the role of mass infection, herd immunity, immune memory or the epidemiological reality of seasonal endemicity.
Getting a cold is never fun, especially for the elderly and vulnerable who disproportionately suffer. As Covid continues its journey towards being another endemic virus, the public should expect more seasonal waves of alarmism. I doubt they will be eliminated anytime soon.