The media is causing harm by reporting official COVID-19 figures from poorer countries

May 14, 2021
People lining up for vaccines in Puebla, Mexico. Photo: Tamara Pearson

Brazil, India and the United States have the highest COVID-19 death tolls, the media reports over and over, every morning. And a while ago it was Britain and Europe.

Things are extremely difficult for people in those countries, but it isn’t true that Brazil and the US have the highest death rates. Almost all of the media have been reporting COVID-19 figures based on country totals, rather than on a per capita basis. This means that the biggest countries typically appear to be doing worse than smaller (and often poorer) countries.

At the same time, the media uses official COVID-19 figures without clarifying how unreliable they are —again, more to the detriment of poorer or majority world countries. This is resulting in a distortion of the global situation.

Here in Mexico, the majority of people who have died from COVID-19 did not get tested, and so they weren’t counted in the official numbers. They do not exist in the numbers that the media repeats over and over, without ever contextualising them, without ever explaining that they are almost meaningless because testing is so inaccessible here.

The US and Europe outspent poorer countries at the start of the pandemic and hogged the materials and equipment used for testing — just as they are doing now with the vaccines. Beyond that, infrastructure problems and poverty also make it harder for people in poorer regions to get tested.

While Mexico City has some free testing, here in Puebla there is none. Getting a test in a private clinic costs the equivalent of a week to a month or two’s wage. Those clinics are also located in wealthier areas of the city and are hard to get to if you don’t own a car, and they are even harder to get to for people who live in the mountains, in Indigenous towns, and in rural areas.

Some people have to travel all day to get tested and return home, and that can be logistically difficult, and not advisable, if you suspect you are contagious.

On top of that, the majority of people here are informal workers, who can’t take time off work because that would mean not being able to eat, so they may prefer not to know if they have COVID-19.

In thousands of US-owned factories around the country — which use Mexican resources then export goods to the US, so people there don’t go without beer — people are being forced to work, and are not being compensated if they have to take time off.

The media has been reporting Mexico’s official death toll as 219,000 (at the time of writing) but based on a thorough study of excess death rates, 617,127 people have died so far here. Note, that figure does not include indirect deaths from the stress of unemployment, the psychological impact of pandemic measures, or people who died from other health issues because they couldn’t access hospital services. The indirect deaths would also likely be much higher in poorer countries.

The media covers COVID-19 as though we were all living in the same conditions — as though we all lived in the more comfortable cities of the Western reporters. In doing so, it makes it look like the pandemic is equally difficult in poor and rich countries, and that then provides some justification for the shameful and greedy vaccine hoarding by the US, Canada and Europe.

But, when it comes to the daily records in India, those are the only figures available, the media responds. Fine, use them, but acknowledge — every single time you mention them — how unreliable they are, and why.

When journalists cover rape or domestic abuse figures for example, we distinguish between reports and reality. We contextualise the figures, recognising how difficult it is for people to denounce abuse committed by someone more powerful than them. We note that in the US, for example, only 230 of every 1000 sexual assaults are reported to the police, so that the real scale of the problem can be properly understood.

Likewise, with COVID-19, the media should acknowledge that the figures exclude many campesinos, unpaid mothers, exploited workers, Indigenous peoples, and whole classes of poor people, of shanty dwellers, for whom healthcare is an exorbitant privilege.

The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation estimates the pandemic has killed 6.9 million people globally — more than double what official numbers show. The institute notes that COVID-19 deaths are “significantly under-reported in almost every country”.

Researchers estimate that over 654,000 people have died directly from COVID-19 in India, which is also about three times its official toll of 221,181 (at the time the research was published).

Russia’s total deaths may be five times higher than reported and Kazakhstan’s 16 times higher, whereas the UK’s would be just a bit higher.

Some of the countries with the highest per capita death rates, based on excess deaths rather than official ones, include Peru, Mexico, Bulgaria, Ecuador and South Africa. For many countries, even excess mortality figures aren’t available — and those are the countries lacking testing and vaccines as well.

Data is used to determine priorities, policy decisions, and how resources are allocated. It shapes our perception of an issue.

The media needs to stop misreporting COVID-19 numbers now, and desist from minimising the hardships in the parts of the world that are facing the worst — economically, socially, and health wise — of this pandemic, on top of decades of unacknowledged pandemics of poverty, of being priced out of medicine, of media racism, and the violence of inequality.

The US, Britain, Italy, Spain, Portugal and other regions manufactured global inequality as they invaded and looted the world, and their transnationals and unequal trade agreements continue to do so.

Providing context for a proper interpretation of figures, is a political choice. The media can continue to downplay the impact of the pandemic on the majority world, or it can ensure a minimum of understanding.

[Tamara Pearson, @pajaritaroja, is a journalist, activist, and author of The Butterfly Prison. Her writing can be found at her blog]

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