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Issue 5

Is COVID over? – Why we have stopped talking about COVID-19

“This second and third wave is strong like a tsunami,” said Uddav Thackrey, the Chief Minister of Maharashtra, in his address to the state on Sunday. He also expressed his disappointment at the people of the state, urging them to stop flouting restrictions post-Diwali, as COVID-19 threatens to surge once more. The picture above was taken in his own state on the night of his address, in a KFC outlet in a mall in Aurangabad. Only a handful of people were wearing masks and still fewer maintaining social distancing protocols as the restaurant was running at full capacity without any sanitisation protocols being followed barring in the kitchen. Restaurants, hotels and gyms have been found to carry the highest superspreader risk for the virus. Yet we see an exponential increase in people starting to go to restaurants, on vacations and getting back to their gym routines. Much of Europe and parts of Asia are seeing another wave of lockdowns, and the US is seeing its biggest surge in the number of cases yet. As the holiday season approaches, there are increasing fears of superspreader events in family gatherings. With second and third waves of infection occurring around the world, COVID shows no signs of ending. Why then, has it all but disappeared from our conversations?

Prime Minister Modi initially claimed that even stepping outside your house could kill you. This was in April. Slowly, as signs of massive economic downfall became apparent, it was clear the nation could no longer remain in a state of lockdown and thus began a multi-step reopening. The country is currently at the last stage of reopening with Goa, Andhra Pradesh, Assam and some other states set to open schools and colleges. The government’s rhetoric drastically changed from “leaving home will kill you” to “you are safe if you wear a mask and maintain social distance. In fact, an advertisement featuring actor Akshay Kumar encouraged people to go back to work by saying “if doctors can do their part, so should we.” The conversation at the national level and especially from the PM has been one of reviving the economy. Studies have shown that in spite of one’s logical convictions, one is always susceptible to the words of one’s favourite leaders. Thus, even if one believes the virus to be a threat, they will ultimately believe the messages being propagated by the leaders they trust, which in this case prioritise economic revival and trivialise the virus. Since our leaders have stopped talking about the virus, so have we.

In a similar vein is the idea of ‘cognitive dissonance’. Staunch supporters of Modi and his government believe that all steps are being taken to minimise and eliminate the virus. Statistics clearly show otherwise. Cognitive dissonance is the discomfort one feels when belief and behaviour contradict each other. To reduce this discomfort, one will have to change either their behaviour or beliefs. For instance, when a smoker knows that “Smoking causes cancer”, she will either have to quit smoking or convince herself she hasn’t smoked enough to suffer from its effect. 

Currently, people either have to reconcile with the fact that the virus is still raging or justify their belief in the government’s handling of the disease by living life pre-COVID style, even at the expense of exposing themselves to it. Many people seem to have chosen the latter option. They also seek out news that confirms their belief. Because people want to believe COVID is over, the conversation around it is fast dying out as well.

An article on VICE talks about the hazards of Optimism Bias. It is the belief that around 80% of people have, where we think positively about the future and overestimate the potential of life. The downside to this is underestimating risks or believing that “It won’t happen to me.” It promotes risky behaviours, in this case, exposing oneself to the virus to continue one’s normal life. Additionally, we have been shown statistics of mortality rates which generally seem to be within a 1-2% mark. Recovery rates in India are being declared as the highest in the world, at around 86%. While these statistics paint a positive picture at first glance, we fail to take into account that even 1% of India’s population is roughly 13 million people. Also, being the best in the world doesn’t have an effect on how one recovers personally. But these statistics, in combination with a tendency for optimism bias spells disaster for virus management. Since people do not feel endangered by the virus, it has stopped being a major talking point.

A study conducted in the US points out that the media is still giving the virus much attention — as it did when cases spiked over the summer. But audience engagement is the lowest it has ever been. In India, the media is rather divided on political lines, and a majority of pro-government channels run COVID news that is favourable to the government. Thus, news about rising numbers and dangers of the virus is limited, since it portrays the government in an unfavourable light. Additionally, as the above-mentioned study finds, people are experiencing an information overload and consequently, fatigue. This fatigue leads people to reduce their news consumption, especially upsetting news. Thus while media coverage might be high, people actively avoid interacting with this information to protect themselves.

Media trends have historically shown how crises leave the news cycle. Wars and pandemics and disaster management and mitigation, in general, are threatening events for a standing government. If they fail at handling these properly, they face the threat of being replaced. In order to avoid this, governments have pressured journalists and media groups historically, to run propaganda they see fit. An article on The Nation mentions how the Irish government forced and threatened newspapers to stop running news about the polio epidemic in the 1950s, even when it was at its highest. They instead claimed false victories and undermined the scale of the virus to save face and calm justified public panic. While this had the unintended consequence of increased unrest and disbelief of the government, this strategy continues to date. Donald Trump recently used conservative American media to propagate his victories of having controlled the virus and ended the crises, even when evidence overwhelmingly suggests otherwise. Thus, the media is unfortunately highly susceptible to government control. In COVID times, we have seen leaders from Modi to Trump claiming falsehoods and wrongful victories. Most news publications either voluntarily or by force run this propaganda. Thus, we have seen a rapid decrease in discussions around this virus.

Lastly, this year has been a never-ending downward spiral. One outlet says of the 2020 news cycle, ‘We’re drinking out of a fire hose every night.’ There hasn’t been a slow night, with some days having multiple headline stories simultaneously. Even when COVID has dominated our lives, there hasn’t been a dearth of other major events, like the Anti-CAA protests, riots in North Delhi, Bihar elections, US elections, Bollywood drug busts to name a few. Many of these, like the now-debunked drug scandal, have been used by the media to divert our attention from COVID. And even when they weren’t actively used for these purposes, many of these events were worthy of our attention. COVID coverage got lost in this tsunami of news, and we were too busy trying not to drown to stop and filter out what was important.

Isha is a student of Psychology, English and Media Studies at Ashoka University.

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