As COVID-19 ends up being the most intensely covered virus in history, there are important lessons to be drawn from the media’s reporting of another international pandemic: HIV/Aids.
Whose lives the world deems deserving of conserving depends, a minimum of partially, on the stories that reporters tell. This was among the findings of my research study into British media coverage of Africa’s Aids pandemic, in which I analysed 1,281 report in between 1987 and 2008.
At the height of that pandemic, journalists helped to expose how intellectual property laws and the business designs of huge pharmaceutical companies overlooked the health needs of those living in poorer countries. Such reporting played an important role in developing the political momentum for the mass roll-out of life-saving treatment throughout the worldwide south.
But Aids likewise provides a darker lesson about the capability of the media to normalise countless deaths taking place around us.
Burying the story – and the dead
Till the late 1990 s, millions of people dying of Aids-related causes throughout sub-Saharan Africa were a non-issue for the British media, much like the initial wave of coronavirus deaths in China hardly signed up on the global media radar. My analysis showed that BBC News reported only 14 times about Aids in Africa between 1987 and 1995, mostly in passing. The Financial Times brought a simple 18 stories in the very same duration.
Little changed following the discovery of life-saving antiretroviral treatment in 1996, which remained out of reach for most of individuals coping with HIV/Aids. In 1999, there were more than 24 million HIV-positive individuals in sub-Saharan Africa. Some nations saw occurrence rates increase above 20%. By then the pandemic had warranted simply one front-page story in the British press.
As late as 2001, The Economic Expert concluded that: “The world is not going to rescue Africa from Aids.
Rooted in thinly-veiled racist presumptions, these assertions guided attention far from the ways that the guidelines of the worldwide financial order weakened the public health capacities of establishing nations.
The worldwide Aids pandemic has been formed by the intricate interplay of epidemiological, behavioural and cultural factors. Its unequal circulation is also linked to the punishing tradition of external debt and conditions for governmental reforms enforced on the continent by the IMF and World Bank. Stephen Lewis, the UN’s previous Unique Envoy for HIV/Aids in Africa, knocked this as “a kind of capitalist Stalinism” that annihilated Africa’s health care infrastructure throughout the 1980 s and 1990 s.
Yet, in more than twenty years, I found only one circumstances that clearly connected the Aids crisis to Africa’s encounter with neoliberalism. Released in The Guardian in July 2000, it was a letter to the editor by a medical help employee entitled “Our guilt in the land of the dying”.
It is this capacity of media reporting to mask the way that pandemics are formed by the world’s grotesque inequalities that is maybe the most disquieting finding of my research as COVID-19 spreads to nations with vulnerable health care systems.
Of revenues, patents and power
The battle over access to life-saving HIV medications that happened at the turn of the millennium showed that this requirement not hold true. Pitting the world’s effective pharmaceutical business against a union of activists and NGOs, the worldwide media became a main arena in which this fight unfolded.
In the early 2000 s, Aids all of a sudden became the subject of front-page news, op-eds and investigative reports as reporters shone the spotlight on the dirty world of international trade politics, exposing how western governments were conspiring with drug companies in securing their patents.
They now had names, households, buddies, and concrete places of origin, as in The Guardian’s “ Conserving Grace” series from Malawi.
As the look for COVID-19 vaccines heightens, reporters need to aggressively question whether governments and pharmaceutical companies are enacting all measures to guarantee universal access
Sign up for free AllAfrica Newsletters
Get the most recent in African news provided directly to your inbox
It’s familiarity for those who led the campaign for access to affordable Help drugs. Alarmed by the possibility of profiteering by huge pharmaceutical companies, they are concerned that coronavirus treatments may once again remain out of reach of the less privileged.
Possibly they are afraid of another monumental public relations fiasco, as occurred when a number of pharmaceutical companies taken legal action against the South African federal government over Help drugs in2001 Still, some professionals are less sanguine about COVID-19, and fear it will be pharmaceutical business who eventually decide who lives and who passes away.
How COVID-19 will end depends, in part, on the script that reporters write and their capability to inform stories that acknowledge pandemics are always rooted in the history of built up global inequalities – therefore our own role within them. With all eyes on the coronavirus, it’s sobering that HIV/Aids continues to claim practically half a million lives in sub-Saharan Africa alone every year.