The outbreak of Coronavirus, COVID-19, has sparked widespread speculation of a global crisis as the pandemic is affecting 121 countries as of 11th March, 2020. In the economic sector, stock markets had their worst performance since the 2008 financial crisis with no sign of slowing down anytime soon. Although this virus was very quick to infect globally, there seems to be a delay in the actions of governments’ to raise the red flag.
This time of epidemic is a test of government’s receptiveness towards prioritising freedom of the press and transparency of information in restraining the epidemic. So far, it seems many governments are performing poorly in this test. This insensitivity of many nations in tracking information properly could possibly severe the crisis.
In China, Dr. Li Wenlieng, who tried to warn his seniors about a mysterious virus, was stifled as a rumormonger by the police. The death of the whistleblower doctor, by the same virus that he had warned about, has prompted a public outcry inside the People’s Republic of China. In communist China, people have complained about the authorities’ effect in using propaganda to restrict significant information about threat of outbreak.
This raises a serious question of whether governments have the space for freedom of speech during such critical issues. The Chinese government is determined to control public outrage by maintaining good public opinion through influencing media narrative. Heart wrenching stories of frontline doctors and nurses selflessly working in the outbreak zones are circulated in the state’s media to unite people with those stories. With over 3000 people already dead, however, there are plenty of tragic stories that have managed to escape Beijing’s propaganda machine, which puts into question the credibility of the government and media.
When President Woodrow Wilson suppressed stories that might disrupt the First world war effort, the Spanish Flu took more lives than all the military deaths of both World Wars combined in 1918. Government’s propaganda discarded information about the flu as pessimistic and the flu ended up taking lives of civilians due to misinformation. It was later when Spanish media covered the news as the King Alfonso XII fell ill, that it was named Spanish Flu. This historical example is a warning sign for governments hiding reality and overlooking criticism. Governments often oversteps their role in the media and lack responsibility in handling such crisis.
Since February 28th, the White House has set to control the messaging of coronavirus. This imposed government officials and scientists under the direction of Vice President Mike Pence. Pence, who is leading this task force assigned by President Trump, has been criticized for the way he dealt with the HIV AIDS outbreak when he was the governor of Indiana, which brings a doubt to Pence’s capability in handling information regarding the outbreak. The politicisation of the outbreak by Trump supporters as another conspiracy theory to bring the President down further downplays the crucial issue of outbreak.
In Iran, the official numbers of infection in the epicentre of the outbreak in the Middle East understates what other indicators have predicted. BBC persia reported that at least 210 people must have died in hospitals as of Feb 28, whilst the confirmed death cases by the government was just 34. The case of Iran is shocking as many of the government senior officials and ministers have contracted the virus and a few of them have died.
One possible cause of this outbreak goes back to the parliamentary election that was held on February 21st. In order to garner public support, the Iranian government suppressed the news of the COVID-19 outbreak, calling it the United State’s boost to obstruct the voter turnout. Forty-three percent of Iranians voted that day, unaware of the virus outbreak that had already started. The miscalculation and concealment of risk by the Iranian government has not only called out national turmoil, but even affected other countries, mostly in the Middle East. If red flags had been raised by the various corona-affected nations, other nations should stay alert to control the spread of the infection to their land.
The lack of transparency about infections and media manipulation in countries like Iran, the US, and China has created a misinformation that prevent countries from preparing for upcoming public health crises. In a dire situation like this outbreak, governments covering up the issue and concealing the truth to save their political game looms the greater danger. This lack of transparency and obstruction of freedom of speech hinders the exchange of information needed to solve any global crisis.