COVID-19: Who is made a priority in the media?

Masks are worn as a preventive measure against COVID-19.

The coronavirus has ushered in — for what seems like the first time in a century — a period of solidarity around the world. The lethal pandemic, also referred to as COVID-19, spreads irrespective of borders and nationalities, yet Western media has specifically favored coverage of Europe and the United States. Such attention has amplified the lives and stories of the Eurocentric “developed” world, distorting which regions of the world are hit hardest, and thus raising the question: whose lives are made a priority in the media?

Relatively little has been reported on Iran as compared to Italy or Spain despite the magnitude and devastation of its outbreak. The few times that the media has covered Iran’s outbreak, news headlines read: “Prepare for War or Fight Coronavirus” and “Iran Says U.S. Sanctions Are Taking Lives. U.S. Officials Disagree” — which depict Iran as a threat to the American public. Iran once faced the second highest number of COVID-19 deaths behind China but is still hardly visible by the media. Rather than highlight the magnitude of human suffering, the media has focused on the Iranian state and its response. The coverage of the “Chinese virus” further perpetuates a narrative of austerity and Western state interests. For the countries seen as longtime threats or enemies of the American people — such as Iran and China — the rhetoric is one that emulates austerity and blame. 

Of course, aggressive and restrictive censoring measures throughout the world have amplified the complexity of the issue. The coronavirus has been credited with perpetuating a “censorship pandemic” due to an increasing presence of global authoritarian leadership, which has barred much of the media coverage in some countries. Knowledge about the pandemic is imperative to its prevention, but many in these communities don’t have access to the Internet or receive select censored and state-controlled information. In Tehran, journalists who question official reports or speak out against a lack of preventive measures are interrogated or detained, and warned that publishing statistics different from official government figures would be arrested. 

In India, there has been little coverage on the nationwide lockdown of the country’s 1.3 billion people since March 25, 2020 (updated April 14, 2020). The lockdown aims to prevent a serious coronavirus outbreak in a country so densely populated and lacking in the medical infrastructure necessary to sustain such catastrophe. Though the nation has been proactive in its coronavirus management, the lockdown has been devastating for one of the world’s largest slum populations and has left many of the nation’s poorest and most vulnerable people to starve, including manual laborers and migrant workers

Instead, Western media has prioritized coverage of the lockdowns in more Eurocentric countries. In the United States, videos of Italians singing on their balconies have gone viral. Obituaries are published. Headlines read, “The Rising Heroes of the Coronavirus Era?,” “How Doctors in Italy Respond to the Coronavirus,” and “What Italian Pediatricians Can Tell Us.” The American media humanizes these subjects. It meets the American public’s expectations of Western people, so Americans can empathize with them.

Meanwhile, terrorism still rages in Afghanistan amidst a growing coronavirus threat and a lockdown of the capital. For one of the world’s most crowded refugee camps, nearly one million Rohingya refugees are left vulnerable to the virus as social distancing is nearly impossible. In Haiti and Cuba, the threat of water shortages is most dire at a time when washing hands is crucial. Even in the United States, Black Americans experience higher rates of infection and death than any other racial or ethnic groups. Ultimately, those who are marginalized by Western media underscore remarkable similarities — non-white or of a nation deemed “developing,” “poor,” or “third world.” 

A Rohingya refugee encampment in the Rakhine State, western Burma.

These communities of color, with little visibility on the world’s stage, are those most vulnerable to the disease. Colonization and Western influence have established a system that allows for these communities to be most susceptible to a global pandemic. People of color hold the majority of jobs in the labor and service sectors — jobs that are not able to be translated online during a nationwide quarantine or lockdown. In the United States, only 16.2 percent of Hispanic workers and 19.7 percent of Black workers can work remotely, so many of the essential workers who cannot work from home are further susceptible to the disease. 

At a time when humanity is paramount to national economies and neoliberal ideals, the media still controls which parts of the globe we should find most human. Amidst a global crisis, the Western world must empathize with all people, regardless of race, socioeconomic status, or state. Its unequal and stereotyped perspective reveals the bias that is perpetuated in the American narrative. While the Eurocentric Western world battles the virus, we battle other countries. We don’t see the Irani people, we see Ali Khamenei. We don’t see the Afghani people, we see the Taliban. We can’t explore the human angle of the coronavirus in these countries because of the narratives that bar us from a more humanizing approach to non-white subjects.