From the start, the North American obsession with China allowed politicians to lay blame at the feet of a foreign government rather than take responsibility for how unprepared for a pandemic North America really was. This obsession also drove media analysis, justifying a deluge of coverage on Wuhan, their farmer’s markets, Chinese government authoritarianism and what that government may or may not have hidden. It was easier to blame the Chinese than it was to ask why Canada’s pandemic stockpiles were depleted or how many post-SARS policies were still in effect.
Death came to North America far earlier than was first reported. The first death was actually nearly a month earlier than the first case was announced on February 29, 2020. Patricia Cabello Dowd of California died suddenly from a heart attack on February 6. Dowd had not travelled and had no contact with someone known to have had covid-19. Her death, announced months later at the end of April, was proof that there was some level of community spread in the United States, gone undetected by state public health officials.
The morning of Dowd’s death, CBC Radio’s The Current featured two segments on covid-19: one that looked at spread on cruise ships and included an interview with Diamond Princess passenger Kent Frasure and the second focused on China. They promoted the second segment like this: “we hear from people in Wuhan who say the Chinese government has played down the coronavirus outbreak at home.”
The intense focus on China from Canadian journalists missed examining North America with similar attention, including posing similar questions about North American response, and what officials were holding back from the public.
On February 26 in Washington State, two people died in a nursing home from covid-19, at a location that was nearby the hospital where the February 29 death had occurred. Nursing home deaths would become far more important to Canada’s story than anything happening in China, and yet, nursing homes received barely any coverage in February.
As the virus started to spread into other parts of the world, English-language journalists covered the pandemic as if it were a threat coming from overseas that could be battled if it appeared on a country’s shores. By the time the virus had established itself in Canada, cases were still mostly linked to travel, especially from the United States. But the U.S. was still not front-of-mind for public health officials, politicians or journalists.
On March 5, citing B.C.’s Director of Public Health Bonnie Henry, Global News reported: “People travelling from China or Iran are being asked to self-isolate for 14 days, and Henry said anyone who has travelled elsewhere and is feeling ill should also stay home.” Henry reminded British Columbians to be careful about any travel, as the virus had been seen in 80 countries, but only named China and Iran.
Even though the virus had managed to spread much further beyond China’s borders, the media’s focus remained on China—what Chinese officials knew, what they should have done and the ways in which Western leaders thought China had been negligent. Despite the attention on travel from China and Iran, as quoted from Henry, the CBC article also reported that there had been one case that originated in the U.S., and four that were community acquired at the Lynn Valley Care Centre.
At a March 9 press conference, where they announced Canada’s first COVID-19-related death, Bloomberg reported that B.C.’s Minister of Health Adrian Dix said that of the 32 people in B.C. who had COVID, only five had contact with China. Compare that to “several” transmissions related to the Lynn Valley outbreak and 16 connected (directly and indirectly) to Iran, and it’s clear that the rhetoric of where the risk was coming from did not match where the vast majority of people got it.
It was a big mistake to frame this pandemic in relation to China. That was clear in February, when the WHO created the name COVID-19 to avoid linking the illness to China, like the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome. And even though journalists often acknowledged that this was a problematic frame, they did little to stop the racist narrative to become a key part of the pandemic story. Had journalists spent as much time focusing on the U.S. as they did on China, how would Canadians have understood this virus differently?
This racist frame gave many Canadians, including me, the false sense of security that travel to places outside of China was safe. When a woman who was the sixth case of COVID-19 in B.C. was found to have travelled on an Air Canada flight from Montreal to Vancouver on February 14, it was becoming clear that global spread was more severe than Canadians officials expressed publicly.
Bonnie Henry told reporters that “officials were surprised when they learned the woman had only visited Iran, and not China or neighbouring countries that have seen the bulk of COVID-19 cases.” CBC reported that around the same time, Iran only had 28 confirmed cases and five deaths. The BBC found later, in August, that Iran more likely had 10 times the number of deaths at that point.
It was impossible for Canadian media to know where and how the virus was spreading, but had journalists asked similar questions about Canada’s response that they did about China’s response, there would have been an important shift in how the dominant narrative framed the pandemic from the start. The obsession with COVID-19 and China had two important spin-off effects: it masked a much larger threat, and it gave cover to racists to spread anti-Asian sentiment.
By not challenging politicians or public health officials, and instead focusing on China, Canadians had no idea just how easily COVID-19 was about to walk through our doors, thanks to vacationers coming home from U.S. or European-based March Break vacations and rising community spread.
As individual actions became the sole mechanism promoted by government to slow COVID-19 transmission, Canadians were primed to see the disease purely as an individual threat, rather than one that would exploit the holes in social solidarity and infect whole communities of people.
Community versus Individual Threat
Once COVID-19 had established itself in Canada, the first major story of the pandemic was how the virus was ravaging long-term care. The virus preyed on the cracks in Canada’s social services and found its way towards the most marginalized Canadians: disabled, elderly, racialized and poor. In the early days, the rare moments of media criticism were reserved for foreign governments, while Canadian politicians in positions of power were given the benefit of the doubt.
On March 5, British Columbia announced “a major jump” in cases with eight new ones. While one of the outbreaks was linked to travel from Seattle, the other was B.C.’s first case of community transmission and would be the start of one of the most deadly stories of Canada’s pandemic experience. The community transmission case was a woman who worked at Lynn Valley Care Centre. Four days later, Canada’s first fatality from COVID-19 was a man living at the Lynn Valley Care Centre. The outbreak lasted until May 5—one day short of two months. Fifty-two elderly residents and 26 staff were infected, and 20 people died.
The Lynn Valley outbreak should have forced media across Canada to pivot from telling an international story, based mostly aboard cruise ships or in China, to one that would demand an underfunded and profit-driven care system to protect Canadians from the virus. There should have been reporting about the links that these facilities have to communities and community spread. But instead, a narrative emerged from journalists that hived off long-term care from the rest of society. This created a divide between the vulnerable on the inside and the less vulnerable outside, with very little attempt at challenging government to do something before COVID-19 spread too quickly.
From the outset though, deaths were consistently reported with additional information that told the majority of Canadians to not worry too much about the virus. Under a generalized fog of pandemic-related fear, journalists rarely reported anything further than what public health had announced, and the information about whether or not someone had an “underlying health condition” would relay the message to all Canadians to absorb this information differently: be relieved if you have no underlying health conditions; be scared if you do.
The rhythm of daily press briefings didn’t allow for more in-depth reporting and, in March, many journalists were also stretched to their limits trying to keep themselves safe while reporting on the crisis. But the template used to report death—gender, age range and underlying health issues—got Canadians used to the idea that COVID-19 was really a problem for a specific kind of person, probably someone of a different age, gender or physical condition than they were.
Usually relying on comments made by public health, a victim’s other medical issues were front-and-centre in the information about where they caught COVID-19 and how they died. Bloomberg reported B.C.’s first death like this: “[Bonnie] Henry said the patient, a man in his 80s with underlying health conditions, passed away Sunday night.” The article only quotes Henry, a pattern that would become the norm for daily reporting.
In the early days of the pandemic, if journalists weren’t talking about the virus and its evolution in China, they were reporting what Canadians could expect once it eventually came to Canada. Transmission started slowly in Canada, and in the first months of 2020, it wasn’t at all obvious that the economy would grind to a halt in March. Officials walked a line between reassuring the population that basic precautions, like handwash- ing and not going into work sick, would be enough to slow the spread of the virus but also telling them to take the risk seriously. But they didn’t impose new public policies that would make fulfilling their requests possible; they didn’t mandate that employers give workers paid sick leave, even though unions had been calling for that especially in Ontario where Doug Ford cancelled the two paid sick days previously introduced by the Liberal government.
Right after the B.C.’s first COID-19 death, Adam Miller wrote a feature for CBC News arguing there was no need to panic over the virus. “While tragic for those close to the victim, the man’s death should not be used as a way to justify panic for the majority of Canadians who are not at risk of severe complications from COVID-19, experts say,” he wrote. Miller quoted figures from the World Health Organization (WHO) to show mortality rates were tied to the age of the patient, and older patients were far more likely to die from COVID-19. He said the overall death rate seemed to be 3.4 per cent, then reminded readers this is still significantly higher than the seasonal flu.
Miller wasn’t alone in how he framed the illness. The day before Miller’s article was published on March 10, Bloomberg’s Amanda Lang asked Michael Gardam, a doctor who had been involved in Toronto’s response to SARS and H1N1: “From the point of view of who sickens and dies from this virus … it seems for many people to be a benign event. Obviously, three per cent is not an immaterial number. Do we know whether treatment has helped save lives, or whether fatalities are a done deal—in other words there is a population that is vulnerable to begin with?”
Gardam reminds Lang that during a pandemic, the focus cannot be on the potential individual impact of a virus. Most important is how the collective responds to a threat to protect people who might be vulnerable to the virus. “From a population perspective,” Gardam said, “it’s still a very big deal.”
Despite this warning, many journalists had a difficult time parsing the difference between individual and collective threat, messaging that left the public confused about how serious the pandemic might be. The frame that COVID-19 wasn’t all that serious further marginalized those folks for whom COVID-19 would be that bad. Telling Canadians that they, individually, will be fine enabled people to come to a similar conclusion as Lang: okay, three per cent isn’t nothing, but is it really that serious? The personal was privileged over the collective and, as Gardam pointed out, the consequences would be dire if the population couldn’t find a way to understand this virus.
Within the first year, COVID-19 would kill more than 22,000 in Canada. As predicted, the majority were older and living in residential facilities. Canadians didn’t understand this threat from a community perspective: what does community spread actually mean? How does the virus go from household to household, through workplaces and other gathering spaces? What role does poverty, low-waged work or disability play in who is put most at risk? These questions were never entertained in March 2020. Instead, risk was repackaged to be an individual calculation. As Miller’s article’s headline said, “80% of people infected will have mild symptoms,” so there was no reason for me to panic. Less than one week later, Quebec’s school system was shut down completely.
This frame prepared Canadians for a virus that wasn’t that bad—and when it turned out to be worse than “not that bad,” a new genre of reporting grew from it: the life and struggles of people who had long-term COVID-19 symptoms. Journalists regularly came back to long-haulers, as they called themselves, to warn that the lingering effects of COVI-19 are mysterious and, in many cases, debilitating. The problem was that these portraits never looked at the collective impact that entire communities of people dealing with long COVID-19 might be. They never asked what the economic impact within an apartment complex where there had been multiple outbreaks may result in. And the reporting rarely gave Canadians an idea of what should be done to mitigate the long-term effect of the virus. There were no national discussions about supports for people who have long-term or lingering symptoms. There were no promises of extended paid leave for people who, after months, still couldn’t work. And rarely did the prospect of long-term effects make it into the discussions about why we need to protect communities from getting COVID-19 in the first place.
Every major national news outlet wrote stories that featured the struggles of one or several long-haulers. Some surveyed the scientific literature or examined where Canadian research was. They all warned Canadians to take COVID-19 seriously or else risk becoming a long-hauler, but none of them discussed what might be done for people like the ones they featured. For example, Audrey Vanderhoek told Global News TV, “I think there’s a bit of a delusion that it’s not going to get you until it gets you. And then your world completely changes.” The B.C. nurse and COVID-19 survivor had symptoms for months after her May diagnosis. At the end of the video, she suggests that B.C. set up special medical care for long-haulers, like providing body scans to see if the virus impacted people’s organs. The clip didn’t pick up on the idea, instead focusing on Vanderhoek’s daily struggle.
Global featured two other long-haulers six months into the pandemic, and each are cast in the same frame: patients talking about the frustration and difficulty of living with COVI-19 for far longer than the popular narrative had said they should have. CTV’s national health reporting team Avis Favaro and Elizabeth St. Philip, with Brooklyn Neustaeter, interviewed two long-haulers whose neurological symptoms stopped them from working; they ended the feature examining a research initiative by Canadian neuroscientists who are hoping to learn more about the illness. Rather than focusing on ideas to help people who have chronic COVID-19-related conditions, like Vanderhoek suggested, the stories stayed close to the personal narratives of the daily struggle to live with a chronic illness.
These long-hauler features missed the opportunity to talk about long-term paid sick leaves, rehabilitation, public supports for long-haulers, official data collection of their experiences and symptoms. Crucially, they neither brought into the conversation voices of people who live with other chronic conditions, nor identified what they’ve been demanding for years to help mitigate the challenges of life with a chronic condition in Canada. There was little written to try and start a conversation about what more chronic illness among the general population will look like: what will happen to the folks who cannot work or who need workplace modifications? What about workers who caught COVID at work—what responsibility do employers have to compensate and accommodate these workers? And critically, how does government policy consider any of these questions? Even as the number of people with long COVID-19 increased, the long-hauler focus never asked any of these questions.
All of the reporting—whether it was assuring Canadians that they would probably be okay or it was analyzing individual impacts of the virus—was premised on the assumption that the most important unit in the conversation was the individual. Journalists didn’t ask about how to manage the illness as a worker, or the impact COVID-19 might have on a person’s ability to commute, do their job, care for their family or loved ones. It was hyper individualized, while also erasing those who would be most hurt by the illness as a sad footnote to an overall not-terrible story. It refused to look at the health of society from a larger perspective.
By reporting COVID in a workplace, a seniors’ residence or a low-income neighbourhood, journalists made it easier for others to ignore how COVID-19 behaved in ways that were deeply linked to larger systemic issues. For two months, even after the first victims died in long-term care, Canadians rarely heard about what a community infection might look like, even if early on experts like Michael Gardam reminded journalists that the key to understanding a pandemic is not to simply look at the potential individual effects it might have.
This is an excerpt from Nora Loreto’s book Spin Doctors: How Media and Politicians Misdiagnosed the COVID-19 Pandemic.