Sky isn’t falling

Recent news headlines bear a strange resemblance to the well-known children’s story, Chicken Little.

Reading the newspaper or watching the news lately is not so different than the panicked warnings that the sky is falling and the end of the world is near. Images of people wearing surgical masks and headlines like “Death wave feared” or “SARS fear spreads as new case suspected” are enough to make one believe that the world is on the verge of collapse. There was a whole section of the Calgary Herald dedicated to the “Mystery Illness,” chronicling a disease that has yet to have a death toll of 120 worldwide. However, media coverage of this event has blown the seriousness of this situation severely out proportion, transforming a flu-like bug into a mystery killer that is lurking at a public place near you.

Mass media has a tendency to exaggerate and downplay facts that aren’t full of doom-and-gloom. Every day, we hear about people who happen to come down with a cough after returning from Asia. A SARS-related death often merits front-page headlines, yet few people are aware that this disease’s mortality rate is only around 4 per cent, meaning that 96 per cent of the population who contract SARS will recover.

Every year, thousands of people die of cancer, AIDS, heart disease, and a myriad of other illnesses. Even the flu claims a few thousand lives. It’s ridiculous that anything even remotely SARS-related–whether it’s warning signs in Chinatown or a suspected new case of the virus–warrants nearly equal news coverage as events that are affecting thousands of people, such as the war in Iraq.

This excessive SARS coverage in the media has led to large-scale paranoia that borders on panic. Mass media has done little to contain the growing panic about SARS, and instead seems to be fanning the flames of fear.

This paranoia has since spread, even to the university, where last week every single student got an official “update on SARS” from the office of the president. Even medical establishments seem to be taking excessive precautions. While waiting in a walk-in clinic with a friend last week, I noticed signs both on the door and on the check-in desk regarding SARS, which has not even been confirmed in Alberta yet. A friend returning from a trip in a region of China far from the infected Guang Dong had a letter upon his return barring him from work for at least a week. It also insisted that he see a doctor, even though he showed absolutely no symptoms. As further evidence of the hysteria gripping the city, he was refused entry into the walk-in clinic and sent to battle the gruelling waits at a hospital emergency department.

Grossly exaggerated mass media coverage has led our already edgy nation to the brink of hysteria over a pneumonia virus. Little do we realize that SARS is a mere acorn when viewed in the context of the world’s other problems, and that the sky is not, in fact, falling. It’s only the foolish, attention-grabbing Chicken Little who is making us think so.

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