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The Media Gets a Handle on Coronavirus

Up until Sunday morning the media was complaining that the messaging on the coronavirus was confused and inconsistent. On Sunday’s ‘Insiders’, Channel Ten’s Peter Van Onselen challenged the advice given by the Commonwealth’s Chief Medical Officer on the basis it was inconsistent with global advice given by the World Health Organisation. He was admonished by the Health Minister, Greg Hunt, for giving medical advice which he was not qualified to give. Van Onselen took umbrage at this and said he would not accept the views of the experts until they were consistent.

Van Onselen’s attitude was typical of the arrogant ignorance displayed by some media commentators. He is incapable of recognizing that Australia may have different circumstances to other countries or that the model constructed for the Government by the Professor of Mathematical Biology at the University of Melbourne, James McCaw, has a degree of sophistication that is not available in models used by other governments. Professor McCaw has been advising the Government on he risk of transmission of the disease. Van Onselon was politely contradicted by the AFR’s Phil Coorey, who suggested that journalists should listen to the Australian experts.

The same disingenuous attitude to the experts was displayed in Insider’s host David Speers interview with the Chief Medical Officer, Professor Brendan Murphy and Health Minister, Greg Humt. As Professor Murphy tried to explain the current measures to contain the virus, Speers kept interrupting with questions about trivial aspects of behavior to which there were no ‘one size fits all’ answers. The ‘Insiders’ panel then basked in a self-satisfied glow as they pointed out minor inconsistencies between the Chief Medical Officer and the state medical officers.

In an article in ‘The Conversation’ on Friday, Mark Kenny displayed a more responsible attitude. He wrote:

“Holding daily press conferences to keep people alert but not alarmed is an inherently tricky business. But “fast, frank and frequent” have been the watchwords for Health Minister Greg Hunt and Chief Medical Officer Brendan Murphy in dealing with the coronavirus outbreak.

Since the earliest days of awareness of the virus, the pair’s updates, along with those of Prime Minister Scott Morrison, have generally struck that delicate balance between official insouciance and overreaction.

Inevitably, advice has evolved as new information has come to light about the virulence of COVID-19 and as governments abroad have embraced more extreme containment measures.”

By Sunday afternoon the ABC was doing its best to make sure the Government’s message was clear. Jane Norman produced a news report on the measures the coronavirus special cabinet of state and federal leaders had decided to take. These measures included closing the borders to travellers from all countries. They now face a compulsory 14 day quarantine period on arrival. The Prime Minister also recommended ‘social distancing’ including not shaking hands and avoiding unnecessary gatherings.

Australians are being advised it's OK to go to the movies and ride on trains, ferries and buses. People can also continue going to the gym, as long as they wash their hands and use hand sanitizer.

Stocking up on "a few days'" worth of groceries would also be sensible, according to Professor Murphy.

"We don't want to encourage major panic buying at the moment — we've seen that with the supermarket chains," he said.

"But I think it is probably sensible to have a few days of supply."

The media have finally got the message right about who needs to be tested. Professor Murphy has said that only people who have arrived or returned from overseas and have symptoms or those who have had contact with people who have displayed symptoms of coronavirus in the past 24 hours, need to be tested.

It is good to see the media finally being responsible rather than running interference with the messaging. The public now have an opportunity to assess the information and take sensible action.

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