JOHN TAN. Covid-19: Which news sources should you trust?

Apr 8, 2020

Crises bring out a natural hunger for good information. How does one choose news sources?

The biggest mistake is to believe that any single source provides all the truth. At best, it can only offer one perspective of truth. In a rapidly changing crisis like Covid-19, nobody has the truth, perhaps just the best guess.

News consumers will do well to ask critical questions. When advice is offered, what is the evidence, historical or research, for such advice? Most news sources offer little evidence. They just recycle what others have said.

Take the social distancing rule. Generally sound, but why two metres? It is intuitively right but lacks clear evidence.

There is sound evidence that the main routes of transmission are by contact with the virus on surfaces, or through the air in tiny droplets of liquid (so-called bioaerosol transmission).

At this point, the research evidence becomes scanty. Various estimates have been made about how long the virus remains viable on surfaces or in the air, but without considering a number of environmental factors; mainly humidity, temperature and sunlight.

One study of virus transmission measured virus viability under winter and summer conditions, looking at temperature and relative humidity as independent variables. It concluded that since transmission is lower in summer, that viruses are less viable at higher temperature and higher humidity (since relative humidity is low in winter). This finding has been reported on a number of news sites even though the humidity finding seems counter-intuitive since viruses should degrade more quickly in drier air which removes the moisture they need to survive.

This research would have been improved if it had also considered UV in sunlight, since there is much more sunlight in summer. Research on one type of UV (UVC) showed it to be very effective in killing viruses and bacteria quickly. Various sterilisation instruments using UVC are offered on the market. However, UVC is filtered out by the atmosphere before reaching earth.

But even UVB and UBA, which do reach earth, can not only dry out bioaerosols more quickly, it can also kill viruses directly although in longer time. Some experiments in developing countries show that sunlight has a disinfecting effect on drinking water, but it takes a number of days.

Surely, considering such factors might imply that some variation in policy might be called for, depending on living conditions, states, regions and seasons, instead of a one-size-fits-all approach.

Comments from epidemiologists are most welcome.

Then, there’s the quality of news and analysis now that there is a rescue package being rolled out. Hard-pressed, under-manned newsrooms usually just report the easy news; the press releases, the news conferences, the talking-heads being offered by well-funded think-tanks. Corporate media will report uncritically what is important to them; the views of their constituency.

The best news sources will go the extra mile: talking to those often neglected and unheard. Those neglected people, after all, can spread a virus as readily as anyone else if their welfare is neglected.

Prime Minister Morrison, like President Trump, usually dodges inconvenient questions. The test of news sources is whether they continue to ask those inconvenient questions, and be seen to be asking those questions.

Some questions that need to be asked, but probably never will be answered: Why over the years has the economy become so vulnerable to unexpected shocks? Was any risk analysis done by our economic managers? Going forward, should economic health be defined in not just GDP terms but on a wider set of human metrics? Is it wise to continue with the emphasis on financialisation in the economy? Why has the RBA limited its quantitative easing (QE) to a number much smaller than the rescue package while the US Fed has said it will do whatever it takes? Why did the Morrison government not use “helicopter money” like the Rudd government did, which resulted in a lower government debt? How will the burden be shared when the time comes to pay down the debt?

Will it be the case that those who have fallen through the cracks of neoliberalism in the past might hope for a better future? Isn’t it true after all that Australia has a wonderful tradition of leaving no one behind?

(John Tan was a deputy editor in the Straits Times newspaper in Singapore. He has been foreign editor and business editor.)

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