With the pandemic hitting countries regardless of gross domestic product, COVID-19 is front and center in our lives, and thus, our newsfeeds. Given financial pressures to publish “clickworthy” news, media is behaviorally rewarded for narrowing reality to what the white gaze has been trained to want, further propagating ingrained biases due to ongoing neocolonialist structures where Western nations control and are served by non-Western nations. Western media coverage of coronavirus in low-income countries tends to be generalized, objectifying, exotifying, and primarily negative. The news focuses its limited coverage on describing low-income nations as hopeless, as if they are piles of dead or starving identical-appearing people. In reality, higher-income countries, with current increased rates of news consumption, can actually learn from these countries’ coronavirus responses.
Global media covers “powerful” countries more than their supposedly “weaker” counterparts. Additionally, news corporations’ ability to finance international bureaus, freedom of the press, media market maturity, and internet penetration influence coverage disparity. Researchers Mark Graham and Stefano De Sabbata found that between 1979 to 2013, the U.S. dominated news headlines, and Sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America received the least media attention relative to population. A University of Oxford map of the world with country size based on the amount of coverage by the British Guardian illustrated through the disproportionate enlargement of Western countries how news can shape worldview.
Historically, colonialism involved physical control over land and people, but these longstanding power dynamics continue to perpetuate the monopolization of modern forms of power, such as how control over media influences health, education, trade, economies, wars, and politics. Even acts of charity—defined by Teju Cole as the “white-savior industrial complex”—ultimately serve to emotionally satisfy the privileged rather than combat systemic oppression.
Recently, Melinda Gates reported to CNN that she foresaw bodies of coronavirus victims lying around the streets of “African” countries, but contrary to Gates’ belief, news analysis by the World Health Organization suggests the virus is spreading more slowly in Africa than elsewhere. As of May 16, countries such as Mauritius, Namibia, and Seychelles have had no reported cases for two weeks. Ethiopia, Rwanda, and Uganda boast positive test rates below 1%. Vietnam, despite bordering China, avoided an outbreak and school is back in session.
That lower-income countries generally have lower percentages of those over age 65—as low as 2% in Burkina Faso and Kenya, and 6% in India—as well as decreased travel and insufficient testing, does not account for these successes. Coronavirus is affecting low-income countries at widely differing levels of severity. One quality distinguishes them from high-income countries is experience combating infectious disease broadly and swiftly—whether that’s tuberculosis, diarrheal illness, Ebola (for which a photographer won a Pulitzer for documenting a “trail of the dead”), or HIV/AIDS.
Thirty-eight African nations implemented full lockdowns one week into April. Sudan used frugal innovation, or implementing functional solutions with minimal resources, by repurposing a stethoscope as an oxygen socket. Uganda adapted Ebola screening strategies for COVID-19. Governments implemented travel restrictions and social distancing prior to the first known case, and no deaths were reported by early May. Senegal has created a $1 testing kit, Nigeria provides drive-through testing via an online registry and screening process. Somalia provided doctors to Italy.
Paraguay, with the least cases in the region, shut down schools and suspended events by early March, and Costa Rica did the same—José Cayasso, a New Yorker who returned to his home in Costa Rica, stated, “Seeing how both governments responded, I would not choose anywhere in the world to be other than Costa Rica.”
Vietnam, since the SARS epidemic in 2013, transparently prioritized health over economic growth. The country used a tiered approach to contact-tracing and isolation, specializing plans for confirmed cases, close contacts, and entire communities needing isolation. Free quarantining was used over self-isolation, given family member proximity. The private sector shifted production toward medical supplies and the government provided clear and concise guidelines, with high public compliance.
We hold dialectic beliefs about Western nations, playing to both the strengths and weaknesses of individual nations, as one would with a person. Low-income countries and non-white cultures deserve more than sweeping generalizations. Pitying entire continents as if they are “shithole countries” is to objectify them, though given the entrenchment of colonialism, it is not surprising. Western media outlets can develop bias training and guidelines for editors, encourage facts and statistics, use local reporting over foreign correspondents, and make a concerted effort to tell stories of success and nuance.
Without media, existence would be in a vacuum. Media holds unique power both to end or perpetuate detrimental beliefs. In the wake of coronavirus, media could help both Western and non-Western nations collaborate based on true strengths and weaknesses rather than hierarchy and subservience. When carefully executed, media can provide powerful and possibly lifesaving insights.
Divya K. Chhabra, M.D., is a former teacher, now child psychiatrist and freelance writer in New York. She has worked with and advocated for asylum-seekers, children in the welfare system, immigrants, persons who identify as LBGTQIA+, and other marginalized groups. She taught poetry on death row and now writes about race, gender, policy, global issues, and even pop culture and travel, through a psychological lens. Find her on twitter @divyakchhabraMD or her website: divyakchhabra.com.