Coronavirus: Is the Media Over Hyping the Threat?

Roger Bate

Is it really acceptable to base public policy on the newsworthiness of a topic? I’ve seen several news reports essentially implying that, even if quarantining travelers or imposing travel bans to China are overreactions to the risk of the coronavirus, this is ok because it’s better to be safe than sorry.

The coronavirus is novel and, for susceptible people, can be fatal. This combination is enough to drive the ever-hungry 24-hour news media and increasingly political responses. There is no doubt that public health concerns of a lethal contagion are one of the very few good reasons to allow — even demand — governments to restrict our movements. But a disease with a fatality rate as low as the coronavirus does not really fit that description.

Ignoring public health for a second, there are concerns that global growth is slowing and that the coronavirus may worsen it. Well, it certainly will if we allow it to, especially if we intentionally slow the economy by restricting trade with China. Companies are so fearful of negative press that they seem to base much of their own rhetoric on what the media and liberal elites demand. While some of this is arguably harmless — note much of the hot air at Davos about climate change — when it becomes corporate policy and is echoed by government policy, it then has real consequences.

When issues lose their novelty, the media move on. But policy shouldn’t if it’s important. Take antimicrobial resistance (AMR) as an example. It’s boring to talk endlessly about cleaner hospitals, better drug use, limiting animal use of antibiotics, etc. But AMR kills orders of magnitude times more people every day than all novel infections combined. 

A contagion will happen at some point, and it’s important we recognize it and react. Unless the coronavirus mutates into something far more dangerous, this isn’t it. News and novelty seem to be driving policy.

This article by Richard Bate first appeared at AEI.

Image: Reuters.

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