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Sunday, June 07, 2020

Information war

The US and China have barely put a trade war behind them, and now Covid-19 has sparked off an unprecedented infowar in which journalists are cannon fodder.

Written by Pratik Kanjilal | Published: March 21, 2020 10:33:59 am
US President Donald Trump takes questions during the coronavirus response daily briefing at the White House in Washington, U.S., March 20, 2020. REUTERS

Contrary to received wisdom, in times of distress, the mind does not turn to higher things. The Covid-19 pandemic has done nothing to improve intellects, and the usual suspects are still up to no good. Zee News asks on prime time: “Why did corona go out of control in Pakistan? Now Pakistan will die of corona.” The relatively insignificant OpIndia attributes the spread of infection in Southeast Asia to Muslim evangelism, while applauding Hindus there for continuing to observe festivals undeterred by the peril.

In the UK Jim O’Neill, currency whiz, acronym pioneer (BRICs is his best-known creation), former Goldman Sachs chief, present chair of the think tank Chatham House and China man, has invited angry responses from Indians by saying, “Thank God this didn’t start in India.” Across the Atlantic, Donald Trump has been referring to Covid-19 as the “Chinese virus”, yet his followers are disappointed and angry because he hasn’t leveraged the outbreak sufficiently to ramp up xenophobia. The Chinese agency Xinhua has struck back with: “Racism is not the right tool to cover your own incompetence.” How vintage, like an echo from Cultural Revolution propaganda.

The two great powers have barely put a trade war behind them, and now Covid-19 has sparked off an unprecedented infowar in which journalists are cannon fodder. A month ago, the US authorities designated Chinese news organisations as foreign missions – an euphemism for propaganda units. Operationally, it only means that they must provide staff lists and cannot buy property without prior permission, but the message has been delivered. The affected bodies include the Xinhua news agency and the China Global Television Network, Beijing’s face to the world.

Last month, China retaliated by expelling three Wall Street Journal staffers for the organisation’s opinion page headline which has been generally seen as racist, designating China “the real sick man of Asia”, recalling 19th century European rhetoric about the fading Ottoman empire. Now, 13 more journalists are on the line from three US organisations – the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal. They will have to surrender their press credentials and cease to report. On Chinese social media, Global Times editor Hu Xijin is reported to have warned the US against escalating this war of reprisals. He points out that the the Americans have more to lose, since they have 29 news organisations reporting in China, while the Chinese have only 19 organisations in the US. The logic is bizarre. From the time of Pascal, it is generally understood that in a numbers game, the players all lose. Only the house wins.

A war on information is a self-goal for all because there is a huge deficit of knowledge on which action against the pandemic and the management of its economic, social and political fallout can be reasonably based. Nations are taking extraordinary steps, and preparing to deliver emergency funding that is often in the tens of billions, if not more. The US has invoked wartime provisions to harness private plant capacity for the public good, and the EU has liberalised access of companies to government funds. Populations under isolation are dealing with restrictions not seen since the Great War, which will have wide-reaching economic effects. But initiatives for containment are actuated largely by prudence, rather than knowledge of the behaviour of the virus.

Perhaps influenced by the message from the WHO, the media has focused on the need for testing. India is being lauded for widening the ambit of testing to patients with atypical pneumonia, for instance. But the samples are not wholly random – they are drawn from a small fraction of the population who report illness – and has sampling bias built in. To estimate the development of the pandemic and its effects on nations, whole populations would have to be randomly sampled. Only the smallest nations have the wherewithal to do that. Liechtenstein, maybe, but not India or Russia. Besides, statistics indicates probabilistic ranges, not absolute figures. Going by the present data, the death rate could be far lower than that of the annual influenza, or very much higher. Also, terminal health data generally features confusing signal to noise ratios, because there is rarely a single cause of death.

The press is not completely seized of the questions that analysts are facing, but there is a crystal-clear explanation of the current uncertainties in Stat, the general interest health research journal from the Boston Globe. ‘A Fiasco in the Making?’ by John PA Ioannidis of Stanford University, who works at the interface of medicine, data science and statistics, is recommended reading. Switch off the he-said-she-said rubbish on the telly, and let’s get back to reading primary material. The PM looks to the middle class for solutions, from self-imposing curfews and beating pots and pans in gratitude to defending service wages. May our choices be informed.

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