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'An Epidemic of Noise'
Posted: Thursday, May 14, 2009

By Derren Joseph
May 14, 2009

Dr David Bratt did an excellent column last Tuesday, headlined “Swine Flu hysteria." My friend Bose believes that Dr Bratt is one of the true heroes of Trinidad and Tobago medicine, and forms a powerful triumvirate with Dr Courtenay Bartholomew and the late Dr Ulix Manmohansingh. All three of them put patient before self to cement the practice of medicine in our country from the late sixties to now.

logoAnyway, Dr Bratt wrote: "…by Saturday last week, the Mexican Government reported that the suspected confirmed cases of deaths…are half of what the world had been led to believe, and that the spread within the country has stabilised. “So far, no one anywhere else has died, with the exception of the poor Houston toddler who contracted the virus in Mexico, and not everyone who is in close proximity to an infected person gets sick. “And those who do contract H1N1 tend to have mild symptoms that resolve themselves without prescription medications."

Thanks to cable television and the Web, we Trinis are fed information, 24/7. Referring to H1N1, BBC’s Jeremy Wagstaff called the coverage an epidemic of noise. Washington Post “media critic” and CNN presenter Howard Kurtz agree that the media is collectively going overboard. The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart concluded that “the media is the reason we panicked." My heart goes out to those who made the mistake of trying to watch Fox—as usual, I think Fox won the prize for instilling the most fear into viewers. The Huffington Post even had a video from some right-wing media source that suggested that the disease was a conspiracy by Mexican immigrants!

Taken lightly
But not everyone in the media is sensationalist. I think CNN’s chief medical correspondent and former candidate for Surgeon General, Dr Sanjay Gupta, come across as being quite credible and balanced. Like in the US, our local coverage has been mixed. I distinctly remember hearing some doctor on a radio talk show doing his best to whip listeners into a panic-filled frenzy. At the same time, there also has been logical, calm and balanced reporting. Being granted the privilege of sharing one’s views with the public is not something to be taken lightly. Words uttered or written in innocence can have a serious impact on the lives of others.

In terms of the media in general, one of my Facebook friends, Caroline Neisha Taylor, said in her status: “I really yearn for newspaper content that’s rich and informed as a rule, rather than an exception. I would be thrilled to read more things that were well-researched, argued and written that I completely disagreed with. You know?" My friend Byron, however, is more cynical. He likes to say that everyone in the media is bought and paid for. In a way, I guess he does have a point. As human beings, each writer, despite best efforts, is imperfect, and can allow personal bias to colour their writing or reporting. But that is the media.

I also have been interested in the responses by authorities who need to demonstrate that they are on top of things. To do this, they, too, need to feed the media beast. So in the US, city mayors, the Vice-President, White House spokesmen, etc feel compelled to give frequent updates. The thing is, we really cannot fault the authorities. Because when it is perceived that they understate the impact of an incident, like President Bush did with hurricane Katrina, authorities suffer severe backlash. So if they say too little, they get in trouble, and if they say too much, some criticise them for spreading panic. I guess either way they lose, so they realise it is probably better to be called sensationalist than disconnected.

Locally, the communications team at the Ministry of Health has been doing a great job of keeping the public informed. That needs to be acknowledged. Not just on television and the radio, but online as well. Its Web site is content-rich and kept up-to-date. Information is regularly disseminated through its Facebook group—just do a search for the Ministry of Health on Facebook. And you can also follow the Ministry of Health on Twitter at I am happy this flu outbreak appears to be less dangerous than originally feared.

But more importantly, it has served as a reminder that we cannot afford to be complacent. As always, I end by saying that despite our challenges, we are so blessed to live in this beautiful country. We need to remember and acknowledge just how much uplifting work is being done all around us. Let us continue to have the audacity of hope in our country, as we move towards Vision 2020.

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