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Heroes, villains and victims: how people and the media reacted to epidemics before COVID-19

How do people relate to doctors and authorities during a pandemic? Why do they wash their hands willingly, but rarely get vaccinated, who is more worried about the news about the disease and what's wrong with comparing a virus with epidemics like "Spanish flu"? "Paper”Retells the findings of international studies on epidemics and pandemics.

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Fear of infection is related to how actively a person is following the news

Interest in pandemic news is correlated with fear of infection. Scientists, after analyzing two surveys of US residents, came to the conclusion that how closely a person monitors information about the outbreak of "swine" N1H1 flu is connected with his level of concern. At the same time, the researchers emphasize, it is not clear what the reason is and what the consequence is: people are more afraid because they read a lot of news, or read a lot of news because they are concerned about the spread of the disease.

On the subject: Mortality higher than from coronavirus: 20 thousand people died in the United States during the flu season

In addition, as the results showed, the pandemic was most frightened by certain social groups: for example, women, people over 65 and those with large families (with six or more children).

  • The study is based on two surveys. Each of them was attended by more than 1 thousand people. The first survey took place in early May 2009, when the first wave of N1H1 began to decline. The second - at the end of August 2009, when the activity of the virus and the news agenda associated with it again gained momentum.

Fakes during an epidemic can spread better than real news. Algorithms and comments help fight them.

Rumors and fake news on medical topics often spread better than real stories. Scientists, using the example of news about Zika virus in 2016-2017, calculated that false information had three times more reposts than true information.

Of the ten most popular news about the virus in 2016, half could be attributed to fake ones. In addition, fake news often portrayed Zika virus as a minor threat or as a conspiracy against society.

  • The authors of the study every month from February 2016 to January 2017 selected the ten most popular stories about the Zika virus using a special service. The total sample for the year consisted of 120 stories. The analysis was carried out in three stages: verification of information (confirmed, hearing or a joke), the number of reposts of the material and thematic analysis of the headings.

During the 2009 influenza pandemic, people washed their hands and disinfected things more often, but few were vaccinated

A sense of risk, level of anxiety, trust in the media and authorities are related to how people follow recommendations. This conclusion was made by scientists who conducted a survey among Italians during the 1 H1N2009 flu pandemic.

More than 60% of respondents said that they began to wash their hands with soap more often than usual; about four out of ten respondents cover their nose and mouth with a handkerchief for a cold and cough, and one third disinfect objects that are regularly touched. At the same time, the percentage of respondents who were vaccinated in Italy was low - only about 2,8%. According to the results of the study, people began to more actively follow the recommendations under the influence of psychological factors: for example, trust or perception of risk.

  • Researchers conducted 1010 telephone interviews with Italians over the age of 18 from Central, Southern, Northern Italy and the islands. At the time of the study in Italy, 228 deaths from the virus were recorded. By this time, the main wave of infections had already passed, but the Ministry of Health was expecting a second peak.

Panic reports of a pandemic and comparisons to more tragic events may result in people reluctant to get vaccinated.

The 1 H1N2009 pandemic did not cause mass panic, although it did lead to a number of changes in people's behavior. As noted in a study in France, this confirms the relative failure of the vaccination campaign in the country. Scientists believe that such a relatively calm attitude of the French towards the pandemic is explained by the fact that their expectations did not coincide with reality: what was happening was less tragic.

Panic messages about the threat of the virus, often containing comparisons with other historical events, in particular with the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic, could have influenced the view of the pandemic. This alarmist representation of the pandemic did not correspond to reality, which in turn influenced the reaction from society.

  • The study relies on the results of surveys conducted before and during the pandemic and one month after the start of the vaccination campaign, as well as on media analysis in France and international scientific media. In addition, the method uses a sequence analysis method, in particular, the theory of diffusion of innovations and social representation.

Anxiety and trust determine how willing people are to take precautions during a pandemic

The authors of a study conducted in the Netherlands drew attention to how people’s attitude towards the H1N1 pandemic at the initial stage changed: from May to August 2009. As three surveys showed, the level of knowledge about the disease has grown during this time, but the perceived severity of the flu, anxiety level and a sense of effectiveness of their actions have fallen. The level of trust in information received from state bodies has also decreased.

Older people, respondents with a high level of anxiety, as well as those who took the disease more seriously, were more willing to observe preventive measures, trusted official information and believed in the effectiveness of precautionary measures.

  • Researchers used online surveys conducted between April 30 and August 20, 2009. The first survey started when there was one sick person in the Netherlands, and the last when more than 1 thousand cases of infection were confirmed.

The townsfolk tend to dramatize what is happening - to divide others into heroes, villains and victims

During epidemics, different groups (for example, groups of people, organizations or entire countries) perform a symbolic function and help ordinary people cope with uncertainty. Swiss scientists have found that during the swine flu pandemic, such groups were perceived either as villains, or as heroes, or as victims.

“Heroes” were doctors and scientists whom society trusted in the first place. Researchers noted a positive attitude towards health authorities, and to a lesser extent towards officials and states, as their actions were not always perceived as effective.

As “villains,” respondents more often described media and private companies (for example, pharmacological) that could profit from a pandemic. And as “victims” - poor and underdeveloped countries, which at the same time were blamed for the lack of hygiene, discipline and culture, leading to the development of infectious diseases.

  • Researchers conducted 47 face-to-face semi-structured interviews, most of which occurred in May and June 2009. Among the respondents there were 22 women and 25 men aged 18 to 75 years.

During the swine flu pandemic, the media wrote more about the dangers of the disease than about preventive measures

The authors of the media review of the H1N1 flu report note that the 2009 pandemic received tremendous coverage. At the same time, attention to the situation in the media did not grow in proportion to the number of patients, but increased against the background of significant events: for example, there were peaks at the beginning of the outbreak of the flu, after the pandemic was announced, and also after the start of mass vaccination.

On the subject: Spanish Flu, HIV, Ebola: How US Presidents Fighted Epidemics

In most of the stories, a new type of flu was presented as a threat, and journalists focused on the severity of the disease and its vulnerability. At the same time, safeguards (although they were the second most popular topic) were discussed much less.

As the authors of the review note, in most cases, the media adhered to a neutral tone in covering the pandemic. But at the same time, two studies revealed that panic messages dominated the agenda. According to the authors, this difference in conclusions may be due, inter alia, to differences in cultures and approach to news.

  • The review was composed on the basis of 13 scientific articles on the display of H1N1 in various media: newspapers, radio, social networks, YouTube, blogs and on television. The review includes articles published in the Web of Science and EBSCO Host databases. All studies used a qualitative methodology.
  • As reported by ForumDaily:

    • A new virus was discovered in the Chinese city of Wuhan in December 2019. In 2020, it covered all continents except Antarctica. On March 11, US President Donald Trump imposed a ban on entering the United States from EU countries. The ban came into force on Friday, March 13, and will last at least 30 days. In particular, it will concern people who have visited the Schengen area over the past 14 days.
    • March 13 Trump due to coronavirus introduced a nationwide emergency regime in the US.
    • On March 11, WHO recognized the situation with the coronavirus pandemic, which covered more than 110 countries. Symptoms of Coronavirus COVID-19 Disease Available here.
    • Virologist's tips on how to protect yourself from infection - link.
    • Taking advantage of the panic in the society because of the epidemic, fraudsters came up with several schemes to deceive victims of personal data and money. The most common ones can be found here.
    • Having succumbed to panic due to a state of emergency, Americans are massively buying toilet paperbut they cannot explain why they need it during the epidemic.
    • Trump has signed into law on paid leave due to coronavirus. Who can count on paid leave, read here.
    • Read all news about coronavirus in our special project.

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