From the Editor: Spreading viruses

Here in Israel, the virus turned viral – from a media point of view.

Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson (photo credit: REUTERS)
Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The coronavirus crisis
, and the way it was portrayed in the mainstream and social media in Israel and abroad, took me back to 1985, when I wrote a research paper at the University of California, Berkeley on the press coverage of HIV/AIDS. I titled it, “The disease newspapers were afraid to spread.”
“Today the acronym is splashed all over the nation’s newspapers and people are asking why nothing was done to stop the spread of AIDS,” I wrote. “But while the AIDS epidemic was foreseen by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) by the spring of 1981, the mainstream press hardly touched the story for two years.”
By the end of 1982, after more than 1,800 AIDS cases had been reported to the CDC, The New York Times, Los Angeles Times and San Francisco Chronicle – in the three cities with the most AIDS cases – had together published just 28 items (mostly buried on inside pages) on what was termed “a gay plague.”
“The national media picked up the story when AIDS began to affect people who mattered, and people who mattered were heterosexuals who were not I-V drug users,” Chronicle reporter Randy Shilts told me. “Really, you didn’t get the media heavyweights on AIDS as a giant story until Rock Hudson’s death (on October 2, 1985), and then it burst into a totally ubiquitous story.”
Fast forward to the media coverage of what is now known as COVID-19. The World Health Organization announced a “mystery pneumonia” on December 31, 2019, first reported in the media as a virus that had broken out in the Chinese city of Wuhan.
“Early in the COVID-19 outbreak, before the disease or the virus were officially named, many outlets referred to the virus as ‘Wuhan virus,’” writes Martha Powell, editor of Infectious Diseases Hub. “Unfortunately, this wording has a tendency to stigmatize individuals from that city, and also builds an association with those of a certain ethnicity, in some cases stoking fear and xenophobia.”

Here in Israel, the virus turned viral – from a media point of view – only after the Health Ministry announced in mid-February that two Israelis on the Diamond Princess cruise ship docked in Japan had contracted the virus. By that stage, the number of cases in China had jumped to almost 70,000, and the Israeli media sensationalized the story, leading to the airlift of 11 Israelis from the ship.
Still, it was only on March 9 – a week after the Israeli elections – that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced a two-week quarantine for people arriving from abroad, the first of a series of aggressive measures Israel took to contain the virus.
In fact, Israel was ahead of most countries in its tough approach, after China’s lockdown appeared to halt the spread of the virus. The World Health Organization declared it a pandemic on March 11, and by the time Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson announced in Australia a week later that they had tested positive, it was the biggest news story in the world. It took COVID-19 months to be taken seriously by the media – and the world – partially because it was stigmatized as “a Chinese virus.”
It is difficult to disagree with Shilts that “the gay stigma” played a part in the media’s demonization of AIDS. When Israeli singer Ofra Haza succumbed to the disease 20 years ago, after keeping her diagnosis a secret, Prof. Zvi Bentwich, the head of the AIDS clinic at Kaplan Hospital, said she had “literally died from shame.” 
The lesson from the HIV/AIDS and COVID-19 experiences is clear: We – and that includes the media – should treat viruses more seriously, more responsibly, and without pride or prejudice.
Steve Linde