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The Responsibility of the Press in Times of a Pandemic


The Press, at its best, has a long tradition of being on the side of progress. L’Express was, for example, in favour of Independence, when most of the urban elite, which its cadres and owners frequented, may well not have been. It took courage.

In an epidemic, another kind of strength is needed – a deep rationality, both scientific and humane – one that goes beyond short-sighted day-to-day exigencies of the Press, one that ensures the common good. 

Let us take two articles on the Covid epidemic in the L’Express of 26 May.

First article: An Interview

There is, for a second time in two months, a long interview of a medical practitioner, Dr. Marie-Christine Piat in a dossier under the curious title taken from her refrain, “Covid-19: Pour que cesse la peur ...”. The choice to interview her twice in two months speaks volumes. Tigit rode L’Express inn bizin rode pu gayn enn dokter ki koz bann koze kumsa! Her Facebook page describes her, in classic testimonial advertising, as “médecin de l’ambassade de France”. Her speciality is not Covid. She is, though L’Express does not say so, in “aesthetic” medicine, and claims to get rid of wrinkles and other signs of ageing, and to get rid of fat deposits. Hope she keeps the l’ambassade de France free of wrinkles and fat. 

Anyway, she offers destination treatment for tourists on a site appropriately called “destytravel” including, it says on the site, “Wrinkle treatment, Rehydration and firming of the complexion by mesolift, Peeling, Laser medical Alexandrite and Nd yag for any type of skin, any area, man and woman, Weight management, Treatment of fat deposits by lipopunction [sic].” One wonders what closed borders do to the size of her clientele.

One thing is for sure, we all know L’Express, too, wants the borders opened pronto. It is, after all, a mouthpiece for the bourgeoisie, which is, after all, genuinely suffering losses because borders are closed, and is in the humiliating position of having to rely on Government hand-outs, both to pay workers and for opaque capital transfers. It must be mentioned that the hotel bosses, in particular, have themselves to blame for being so short-sighted as to refuse to divest out of hospitality and to invest, at least in part, their capital in alternative ventures, in production of more essential items like, say, a food preservation or a new fishing industry; we are, after all, 15 months into the pandemic that everyone except the hotel bosses knew would keep borders closed for years. In L’Express of 13 April, Dr. Piat was asked point blank, “Faut-il ouvrir les frontières?” and she replied point blank, “Sans aucun doute.” This ensured the second interview, during an epidemic, of a medical practitioner, who practices privately and is no expert in epidemiology or public health.

Bear in mind that the main health problems for this particular epidemic, as we all knew at its beginning, is the importance of flattening the curve and protecting the health services from being overwhelmed or even collapsing. The main problem is not raw “numbers of deaths”, though these, even with all the drastic measures taken, have been heart-breaking to any feeling human being.

Anyway, L’Express poses a leading question to kick off the second interview. “Le virus du Covid ressemble-t-il au virus de la grippe?” The question brings up the spectre for any L’Express reader of Donald Trump’s misguided first months of the Covid when he was U.S. President, when again and again he said it was “just flu”, “just the sniffles”, a view which led to policies now known to have been responsible for some 500,000 of the 600,000 Covid deaths in the USA, even according to the White House advisor on this at the time, Dr. Deborah Birx. Some flu. 

Dr. Piat replies, in a most curious way. She says, “la moyenne age de décès est de 81 ans”. Stop and think what this could mean. What is in the Dr.’s mind. Does she not imply, by her strange answer, that either old folks are better off dead, or that the epidemic presents an opportune way of dealing with the so-called ageing population, or at best that old folks were going to peg off soon anyway. In other ways, Covid is like flu. Old people are not people? This reply should provoke a supplementary question from L’Express, “Should that not make us, Dr. Piat, wish to take even more care to prevent the elderly dying? Precisely because they are frail?” 

The second thing the Doctor then adds is equally alarming from a moral point of view. In fact, it is a tumbril. (“A tumbril” is a figure of speech for when someone opens up a vent and lets something out really uncontrollably fast, usually a prejudice, like the original tumbrils that suddenly unloaded waste or worse at a dump somewhere.) She says in answer to the question is Covid like the flu, “78% des Americains, qui ont eu besoin d’un respirateur ou qui sont mort du Covid, avaient un excès de poids”. What is the implication in her choosing this answer? That they deserve to die? That they are less valuable? What kind of comment is this? Does the journalist not have any follow-up question to ask to help the Doctor see the meaning of her words? 

In fact, the Doctor continues in this unfeeling vein: “On n’insistera jamais suffisament sur l’importance d’entretenir notre ‘capital santé’, ce qui ne relève que de notre responsabilité et non pas celle du gouvernement”. What does this mean? Should the government let people die because they are so cussed as to go get too old or too fat? What kind of talk is this? And from a medical practitioner? And it passes for normal? Has L’Express, too, lost its boussole to print this without comment?

The second question, too, is complicit. More people, the L’Express question states by way of introduction, died of cancer and other infectious diseases last year than of Covid, which killed (only?) 1.6 million. “Cette peur est-elle justifiée par les chiffres?” The answer once again continues to say it is, “majoritairement des personnes en fin de vie et porteuses de comorbilités les condamnant a très court terme.” And despite only these absolutely superfluous people being done in, “un vent de panique a soufflé et souffle encore.

The journalist really should have taken her up on this. There are logical follow-up questions: “Dr Piat, did you notice that the hospital and burial facilities in New York City were overwhelmed at the peak of the epidemicCould you perhaps comment on that? And in Italy? And in India right now? Was catastrophe not narrowly averted by curfews and lockdowns provoked by the rational fear of the effects of the epidemic?” 

And a further follow-up, “Dr Piat, had there not been some rational fear that demanded lock-downs, and had not one-half of the population everywhere not been as considerate of aged and more vulnerable people, what estimate do you have of the numbers of deaths in the USA, in France, in India, in Brazil?” Would it be twice as many? Or, where hospital services collapsed, Dr. Piat, would it have been, say, five times as many, or more times?” And “Are you aware Dr. Piat of thousands of people being buried in mass graves on Hart Island in the richest heart of the richest country in the world, New York City, at the height of the epidemic? What do you think of this, in relation to Covid being like the flu?And of the pyres in India right now?”

Really, one has to think ahead when publishing an interview like this. What effect does it have on present measures that we are all taking to limit the speed of spread of the virus? And what effect does it have on our idea of morality, of our care for those who are fragile? And will it not lengthen the time borders are closed?

Science had, five days before the interview but without L’Express being aware, published the statistics for “excess deaths” world-wide over the Covid period – and they are 3.1 million. This means 3.1 million people died in excess, despite all lockdown measures, as the numbers who died in the same 14 months, averaged over the previous five years. And that figure, 3.1 million, includes lower death rates than the previous 5-year average in almost all countries where the epidemic was under control, like New Zealand and Mauritius – lower rates because, presumably, of less accidents and less other infections because of lockdowns and mask-wearing, respectively. And the pandemic is not yet over.

We do not mean to say that the economic consequences of measures like lockdowns and border closures are not onerous. Of course, they are. But, the better controlled the epidemic, the better the vaccine roll-out done by government, the quicker borders can be opened and the better adverse economic consequences can be reversed. In any case, it would do well for commentators to remember that the more equality in society, the less drastic the effects of Covid and its measures for controlling it.

2nd Article in L’Express: Vaccine Panic

The pandemic has been haunted by coming after an on-line campaign of totally irrational anti-vaccine propaganda and lies, led mainly by extreme-right wing groups, particularly in the USA and France. These groups have infiltrated natural-healing circles and, as an add-on, used “anti-big Pharma” propaganda. The pre-existing campaign got up-and-running fast against Covid vaccines, as they were being developed.

In this context, when the Government is rolling out its vaccination campaign, L’Express has a duty of care in what it publishes. We know L’Express and the bosses are in favour of vaccination, but it seems that selling newspapers trumps even this. So, on page one of 26 May L’Express, there is a sub-title, “Hypertension ou vaccin? Une patiente partiellement paralysée,” which is followed by a most confused report under the title, “Une patiente partiellement paralysée après l’administration de l’AstraZeneca”, quoting the patient’s husband’s understanding of, and recollection of, what a doctor told him at a time when he and his wife were appropriately in a state of distress because she was paralyzed on one side. The report confuses veins and arteries, attributes phrases to a medical practitioner, which, taken out of context, can only be called unlikely – and no doubt translated by an amateur at L’Express, with little understanding of veins and arteries or of translating Kreol into French. 

The first thing L’Express should be careful to do is to avoid reporting “en primeur”, as one radio unabashedly announced it was doing, in favour of reporting accurately. Then readers do need a gentle reminder that, without Covid or vaccines, people do get partial paralysis, which is often temporary in nature. It exists outside vaccines. So, because the woman patient’s paralysis came after the vaccine, it is not automatically the cause. That is surely the first law of logic. Then, the most cursory visit on-line, would have informed journalists that cases of blood-clots after AstraZeneca have occurred, up till now, four days or more after the jab, not the same day. It is still not certain if there is a causal relationship. So, that, too, needs to be taken note of by a journalist before linking the woman’s symptoms to the vaccine. 

All this to say that the Press needs to maintain a higher standard of ethics during an epidemic. This means noting the context of issues. It also means seeking appropriate doctors to interview. It means knowing a minimum of the science. It means awareness of the real-life experience for health care workers. It means being humane towards the fragile. It means being aware that a press article can contribute to an on-going dangerous propaganda campaign, for example, against vaccination. Words matter. The Press needs to be able to predict the consequences of the articles it prints. Is this consequence useful? Or harmful? If useful, go with it!