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Media Downplay Global South Leadership on Covid-19

Only Westerners, it seems, are deserving of praise.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel walks to the Chancellery while accompanied by her bodyguards in Berlin on May 13, 2020. (Photo: Michael Kappeler/Picture Alliance via Getty Images)

Amid the Trump administration’s calamitous response to the Covid-19 pandemic, media have been looking to other countries for inspiration in responsible leadership during a period of crisis. New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Arden has been one popular pick, having capably managed to limit the damage to only 1,504 infections and 22 deaths, as of June 5.

A widely shared article in the Conversation (4/5/20) described Ardern as putting on a “masterclass in crisis leadership.” The Washington Post (4/7/20) characterized her government’s response as a “triumph of science and leadership.” Elsewhere, she has been praised as “the most effective leader on the planet” (Atlantic, 4/19/20) who “should be teaching the rest of the world” (Guardian, 4/10/20). The Financial Times (4/19/20) unironically anointed her “Saint Jacinda.”

Despite its obvious geographical and economic advantages, New Zealand certainly deserves praise. But less deserving have been the European countries corporate media consistently highlight as outstanding performers. With over 185,000 cases and 8,763 deaths, Germany has one of the highest per capita fatality rates in the world. Yet Chancellor Angela Merkel has drawn effusive praise as somebody who “embraces science” (Atlantic, 4/19/20; Guardian, 4/16/20; Financial Times, 4/3/20). CNN (5/7/20) proclaimed her a “global leader on coronavirus”; Vox (5/21/20) said she’d been “praised for her clear and effective communication with her country — and the world.”

In its editorial on crisis leadership, the New York Times editorial board (4/30/20) also praised Merkel (while attacking China for supposedly covering up the outbreak). They highlighted and applauded the leadership of several other countries, including Denmark, Norway and Finland. Amazingly, the editorial also singled out and commended Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, whose inept response has led to Italy having the third-highest number of deaths in the world at the time of its publication.

There was far less praise for leaders in the Global South. Indeed, the only one mentioned by name was Taiwan’s Tsai Ing-wen, and this was primarily because she “sent millions of face masks to the United States and Europe”—although with 443 total cases and only seven deaths, Taiwan has had a far more enviable record on Covid-19 than most of the countries featured in the editorial. True Asian leadership, according to the Times editorial board, is helping white people, apparently.

The New York Times (5/15/20) also published an article praising Sweden’s “more measured approach” to the virus, which essentially involved keeping most businesses open and carrying on more or less as normal. Maud Cordenius wrote that the “aggressive bombast” other countries have used “would not resonate” in Sweden. “Time will tell if my country’s coronavirus plan was wise,” she concluded. That time was five days; on May 20, Sweden became the country with the highest Covid-19 death rate per capita in the world, 50% worse than even the US (FAIR.org, 4/30/20, 5/27/20).

The problem with much of the reporting focusing on rich, developed countries where media have foreign correspondents is that it ignores often superior responses to the virus from much of the Global South, countries that have nothing like the resources of advanced Western states. Cuba has successfully bent its curve downwards, and has sent medical staff to dozens of countries around the world (FAIR.org, 4/14/20, 5/31/20), including to crisis-struck Italy, held up as a model of leadership.

The Indian state of Kerala, extremely poor by international standards, recorded its first coronavirus case a month before New Zealand. Yet an impressive feat of organization from local authorities has limited the outbreak to just 1,588 cases and 14 deaths.

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Vietnam was hit by COVID-19 even earlier than Kerala, yet the entire country mobilized against the threat in a manner oft-compared to the struggle against the US military during the war. Whole towns were quarantined after a single confirmed case. Citizens have their temperature constantly checked in public buildings and transit hubs like bus stations. Food is provided to anyone self-isolating to make sure nobody needs to endanger themselves or others by leaving their homes. They have also created and mass-produced test kits, all costing less than $25 each, and giving results in 90 minutes, exporting them around the world. To date, Vietnam has still to record a single death.

But when commenting on Vietnam at all, media tend to brush off the country’s success as not down to leadership or the nationwide determination to stop the pandemic, but to its authoritarian government (e.g. NPR, 4/16/20; BBC, 5/15/20). Foreign Policy (5/12/20), for instance, published an article called “Vietnam’s Success Is Built on Repression,” which informed readers that Vietnamese authorities digitally track citizens. Wow—imagine living in a country where security services surveil your phone and social media! (For more on Vietnam, see FAIR.org, 5/15/20.)

The problem, for corporate media, is the orientation of these governments; Vietnam, Cuba and Kerala are all overtly Communist. A system media has been insisting cannot work (FAIR.org, 2/8/19, 2/3/20, 3/6/20) cannot easily be praised, so it is ignored or denigrated. Don’t expect to see any fawning articles declaring Raul Castro a saint, or wishing the “inspirational” Nguyễn Phú Trọng were president of the United States any time soon.

Perhaps the only country that moved quicker than Vietnam was Mongolia, which shut down schools, universities and other public buildings and restricted border crossings in January, before any cases had even been found. Throughout February, the country was doing what we now wish we had done: stockpiling PPE, procuring test kits and cancelling public events. To date, it has still yet to record a single in-country transmission, the only cases detected coming internationally. Yet corporate media ignore these examples in favor of praising white Western leaders with palatable political backgrounds.

One Asian country that has received praise is South Korea, a close US ally (Time, 4/30/20; Business Insider, 5/2/20; Guardian, 5/20/20). The country was hit badly at first, but through strict surveillance and contact tracing has managed to limit the outbreak to 11,668 cases and 273 deaths, far more than Kerala, Vietnam or Mongolia. Despite this, the Atlantic (5/6/20) described their response as “exceptional”—something, in an Asian context at least, it clearly was not. Indeed, per capita, South Korea lost considerably more people to the virus than China, much less Taiwan, Vietnam or Mongolia.

The cold, hard fact is that, in comparison to many countries in the Global South, the West’s response has been atrocious. Even New Zealand’s performance is surpassed by a number of nations, particularly in Asia. Unfortunately, New Zealand’s response should have been the benchmark for rich, developed countries, not the exception.

However, for political reasons, many of the world’s best performers are ignored in favor of Ardern, or even far less deserving figures in Europe. A toxic mix of political expediency, ignorance and the general assumption that Western countries must know better has infected our media, leading to a pandemic of biblical proportions.

Total confirmed deaths per capita from Covid-19, as of June 4, 2020, for selected countries on a logarithmic scale. (Note: Deaths in Vietnam, Mongolia and Taiwan are too low to show up on this scale.) (Chart: 91-VIDOC)

Alan MacLeod

Alan MacLeod

Alan MacLeod is a member of the Glasgow University Media Group. He is author of "Bad News From Venezuela: 20 Years of Fake News and Misreporting." His latest book, Propaganda in the Information Age: Still Manufacturing Consent, was published by Routledge in May 2019. Follow him on Twitter: @AlanRMacLeod

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