New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern replied to a question at an April 6 press conference by declaring that the Easter Bunny and Tooth Fairy had been declared "essential workers" amid that nation's "stay at home" order. Directing her comments to local children, she did warn, "The Easter Bunny might not get everywhere this year."
As a cute moment and a respite from the grim march of Covid-19 hospitalization and death numbers, Ardern's quip drew widespread coverage in the U.S. media. The New York Times (4/6/20) ran a long article that ranged from ways that parents are keeping children occupied during virus lockdowns to Ardern having been "the first world leader in nearly 30 years to give birth while in office," and a February tweet by a man who said the prime minister helped him open his beer at an airport. CNN (4/6/20), the Washington Post (4/6/20) and CBS News (4/6/20) all ran items as well, with most noting that with only one recorded death, New Zealand has so far mostly been spared the worst of the global outbreak.
Ardern's Easter Bunny comments got the kind of widespread coverage that has largely been absent for an important piece of the pandemic puzzle: What can nations that are at the center of the second wave of the coronavirus outbreak, like the U.S. and much of Europe, learn from those that were in the first wave, particularly China, South Korea and Hong Kong? There was an initial flurry of articles looking to the East — first focused on examples of "draconian" measures, like lockdowns, that now seem almost routine (Time, 3/13/20), then later on early signs that life was beginning to return to normal, with infection rates down and shops reopening (USA Today, 3/10/20; Al Jazeera, 3/17/20). (Ardern herself earned an approving article in the Washington Post — 4/7/20 — for taking early steps to lock down her nation for four weeks, despite only having about 100 confirmed cases of the virus at the time.) But reporting on lessons to be learned from the first victims of COVID-19 has mostly disappeared from U.S. media, to be replaced by daily reports on surging or falling death counts.
This is a huge omission, because there are many urgent questions for U.S. residents and policymakers that could be answered, at least in part, by more investigative reporting about results overseas. Some of the more important issues:
- How long does it take for nations to bring infection rates down, and which measures are successful in doing so? Is closing schools and offices key? Social distancing rules to stay six feet apart in public? Intense testing and contact tracing?
- Which activities are being returned to normal first, and are there any early signs of which are safer or more risky?
- How and where are most people getting infected? Are extended gatherings indoors (such as work meetings or choir rehearsals — Los Angeles Times, 3/29/20) more likely to spread disease than brief encounters or those outdoors?
- How accurate are the available tests for the new coronavirus, and what does it mean that some people who tested negative are again testing positive (NPR, 3/27/20)?
- Are experimental treatments such as infusing patients with antibodies from recovered COVID-19 sufferers (Korea Herald, 4/7/20) showing any signs of being able to ease the disease's effects?
The handful of stories on these topics have barely scratched the surface of what scientists, journalists, and public leaders should be considering as nations rush to decide how to stem the spread of COVID-19. Trying to pin down what kind of gatherings are most likely to create surges in infections is a key question about the pandemic, for instance, but despite the occasional articles about such things as a European soccer match that appears to have led to the initial outbreak in Italy (AP, 3/25/20), most U.S. coverage has limited itself to public interest–style stories about virus-spreading office meetings (WBUR, 3/12/20) or funerals (New York Times, 3/30/20), with little or no investigation of whether this is an indication that placing people in close quarters indoors is the greatest risk, or just the easiest infection vector to track. Al Jazeera has reported on how mass gatherings at mosques in Kuala Lumpur (3/18/20) and New Delhi (4/7/20) led to "super spreader" events in Indonesia and India, an important observation that has been absent from U.S. coverage of churches that are continuing to hold services despite social-distancing advisories (CNN, 4/5/20).
How is the virus continuing to spread in the relative success story of South Korea? NBC (4/5/20) mentions clusters at a Daegu hospital and a Seoul church.
As for how and when anti-pandemic measures can begin to be lifted, reporting from overseas has also been spotty at best. NBC News (4/5/20) reported from South Korea that residents are seeing busier streets and lines at restaurants, even as new cases have begun to rise again, citing the National Cancer Center professor Ki Moran as saying that new rules of "everyday distancing" are being considered, including staggering class times for students or rearranging lunch tables in a zigzag pattern to keep students farther apart. The next day, though, ESPN (4/6/20) reported that South Korea's baseball league was getting ready to begin its season — without mentioning the uptick in new cases.
Meanwhile, CNN (4/3/20) devoted a report to whether Chinese caseload numbers can be trusted, but failed to mention a new lockdown in the Chinese county of Jia (Bloomberg, 4/2/20) in response to a flareup there. And two articles in the New York Times on Tuesday (4/7/20, 4/7/20), while providing welcome reporting from on the scene, reported exclusively on daily life in Wuhan and Naples without attempting to examine which distancing measures are working and which can safely be lifted first; they focused much of their attention on economic concerns rather than epidemiological ones.
Testing is another key to bringing the virus under control in the U.S. — South Korea's move to quickly test huge numbers of residents has been credited for helping cut short that nation's initial surge of infections (Los Angeles Times, 3/14/20), and epidemiologists have said that widespread accurate testing will be a necessary precursor to any return to normal public life (New York Times, 4/6/20). But articles on the need for testing have seldom raised the question of whether existing tests are accurate or sufficient: The Wall Street Journal (4/2/20) reported on concerns that patients who have tested negative, then positive, as a possible sign that the current rushed-into-services coronavirus tests register numerous false negatives; meanwhile, other reports out of South Korea (Korea Herald, 4/6/20) have indicated that the virus could have been present all along but "reactivated," which would present problems with trying to clear those who've survived the virus to return to unfettered public life and provide vital services, as some have suggested (Wired, 4/5/20).
As for other potential treatments that could ease the human toll of the virus even if its spread can't be entirely stopped, the Los Angeles Times (4/6/20) reported on a pilot study that showed hospitals in China had seen improvement of patients' health after infusing them with "convalescent plasma" containing antibodies taken from the blood of recovered COVID-19 sufferers — though the Times didn't appear to have spoken with any of the Chinese researchers, instead citing only their study in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences (4/6/20).
Reporting on the ground from faraway nations can be time-consuming and expensive, especially in an era when U.S. news outlets have cut back significantly on foreign correspondents (Atlantic, 2/16/17) — though there are certainly plenty of local journalists who could be recruited to fill the void (Business Standard, 1/11/19).
However U.S. media choose to improve their coverage of the lessons of the first wave of the evolving crisis, here's hoping they figure it out soon: There's no way to fight a global pandemic without thinking globally.