TV playing nanny: How Asian broadcasters helped fight SARS

Media joined the public awareness campaign
Media joined the public awareness campaign
Now that the World Health Organisation (WHO) has raised the swine flu level to Phase 5, the next to highest level in the worldwide alert system, everyone is talking about a global pandemic. On 30 April 2009, the UN’s top health agency referring to it as Influenza A(H1N1).

As I just wrote in another blog post, “While medical doctors and researchers spearhead the public health response, we need the mass media and all communications professionals to support the public awareness response. Flu shots and hospitals alone cannot win this battle.”

This is where Asian mass media – especially broadcast television – have some relevant and useful experiences. When Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) spread across much of East Asia and Southeast Asia, it wasn’t just the public health systems that took on the epidemic. The local, national and regional media joined the effort in the true spirit of public interest. There was no division between state-owned and privately-owned media. The airwaves were mobilised for preventing, containing and eventually beating the disease that wreaked havoc for several months.

The role played by Asian media during the SARS crisis has been studied and analysed in considerable detail. Lessons from that experience are worth recalling at this moment when the world is looking for ways to contain swine flu.

When SARS forced Chinese schools, universities and public offices to be closed for several weeks in the Spring and Summer of 2003, the country’s television broadcasters rose to the occasion. They started beaming a combination of entertainment and educational programming round the clock to over 400 million households across the country — now the largest national television audience in the world. The idea was to use the media to encourage more people to stay inside homes and minimise the spread of the virus through contact. China Educational Television (CETV) — the satellite distributed educational network — took on the role of substitute teacher by increasing its broadcasts.

Crisis? What crisis?
Crisis? What crisis?
Of course, as the most likely place of origin of the SARS virus, China’s initial response to the epidemic was denial. Researchers have established how the slow or muted media reporting within China triggered more rapid disease transmission of the virus both within and beyond China. As the noted Asia watcher, columnist and journalism professor Tom Plate, wrote in 2008: “All the serious Chinese journalists were left holding their heads in shame. In effect, the institution of the mass-communication of news, because it was not allowed to do its job, contributed to the enormity of the SARS toll.”

Many researchers agree that it was the island republic of Singapore that best handled the SARS crisis. Dr Stewart Auyash, an Associate Professor in Health Promotion and Physical Education at Ithaca College in New York says: “Of the countries affected, the actions of Singapore’s government stand out as an example of how to deal not only with the biological elements of the disease but with the methods, style, tone, timing and breadth of its communicated messages.”

The Auyash study was titled ‘Communications as a Treatment for SARS in Singapore and its Lessons for Infectious Epidemics in Asia’, and appeared in Media Asia (Vol 32, No 4). Although the journal’s publishers restrict online access to subscribers, a copy can be freely downloaded from here.

Here’s how Tom Plate summarised its findings: “At the outset of the 2003 crisis, Singapore’s government and media authorities hammered out a clear plan to limit the syndrome’s spread among the populace. It adopted a containment policy that offered a major role for news media institutions. The media was asked to promote the idea of positive participation by all citizens to avoid furthering transmission.

Practising what we preach...
Practising what we preach...
“Model citizens who followed World Health Organization guidelines with exceptional care were made proud subjects of newspaper feature stories. Top government officials, including high-profile members of the cabinet, were photographed or televised as submitting to the same mandatory preventive procedures as everyone else (for example, regular temperature checks). But citizens who fought the program by either resistance or even tepid nonchalance were portrayed scornfully, with the media publicly castigating them as ‘free riders’ who benefited from a safer health environment solely through the sacrifices of others.

“To make the media policy work, the government had to play things absolutely straight. When officials knew the answer to a scary question about SARS, they answered it quickly and completely; but when they had no answer, rather than making one up and putting their credibility at risk when this was later discovered, they flat out stated that they simply did not know but would try to find out.

“In Singapore, compliance with all kinds of government policies, not just health measures, is viewed as a personal and community responsibility. It is in the small city-state’s civic ethic that ‘individual rights and inconvenience may be infringed upon to protect the greater good of the public’s health,’ as Prof. Auyash put it. Even so, what seems both notable and possibly transportable to other countries is the cooperative role of the news media in a serious health crisis. Auyash points out that the role of the media is to emphasize symbols of positive compliance. Gestures and symbols, he says, ‘can galvanize a nation’s citizens to act. In short, symbols matter.'”

At the height of the crisis, Singapore even launched a dedicated SARS TV channel. The public service channel, which began in May 2003, was run jointly by Singapore’s three main broadcasters — Singapore Press Holdings, Media Corporation of Singapore and StarHub — and aimed to raise awareness about how to identify symptoms and prevent the spread of the disease.

Everyone was roped in, from educators to entertainers, in the all-out campaign against the invisible but formidable virus. The popular local sit-com Phua Chu Kang, which airs on Singapore’s Channel 5, came up with this hilarious rap video advising viewers the dos and don’ts of SARS.

As Prof Auyash concludes: “Singapore’s communication management around SARS can serve as a guide for future infectious disease control measure…There are major principles learned from SARS in Singapore from which other countries can learn…”

The US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) offered a similarly positive post-crisis judgment. This global defender against infectious diseases has praised Singapore’s aggressive and expansive policy of contact tracing and home quarantine during SARS.

“The bleakest projections about bird flu suggest that more than 300 million people could die from a global pandemic,” says Tom Plate. He adds: “Let us hope that such a number will never be realized simply because nations refuse to learn from the successes of others, simply out of pride, parochialism, ignorance or stubbornness. A pandemic of stupidity can kill people, too.”

A message from our...tormentors
A message from our...tormentors

Author: Nalaka Gunawardene

A science writer by training, I've worked as a journalist and communication specialist across Asia for 30+ years. During this time, I have variously been a news reporter, feature writer, radio presenter, TV quizmaster, documentary film producer, foreign correspondent and journalist trainer. I continue to juggle some of these roles, while also blogging and tweeting and column writing.

One thought on “TV playing nanny: How Asian broadcasters helped fight SARS”

  1. In Sri Lanka, our enlightened governments have found better ways than gentle persuasion to deal with bird flu, swine flu, SARs and other infections. First, they declare the infection a threat to national security, and outlaw the virus or bacteria through an urgent government gazette. Then it is declared an anti-national, western, neo=colonial conspiracy. All people carrying, harbouring or spreading it are taken into custody (for their own good, of course) and kept in detention for undefinite periods. If media and courts question it, their patriotism will be questioned. After a while, the whole thing goes away.

    Why can’t other countries emulate our civlised ways? We have almost rooted out terrorism thisway, and are will no doubt now try the same approach with infections, dissent and other nuisances.

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