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COVID-19 secrecy: Nigerian media, health privacy and public safety

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Dateline: Wuhan China, December 19, 2019; the novel coronavirus, a severe respiratory syndrome was first reported. Hoping it would simply go away, the nonchalant world simply took a passing notice of what would later become its biggest health challenge in history. But when in January, the US and other European countries recorded index cases with ensuing hundreds of hospitalisations and deaths, nations and institutions like the media began to devise hurried but divergent measures to fight the disease.

COVID-19 is now almost a way of life, especially as the World Health Organisation warned that the world might just have to live with COVID-19 as it does with HIV/AIDS.

United States’ leading newspaper New York Times in one of its major reports on May 24, 2020 demonstrated how good journalism could positively impact fight against emerging infectious diseases (EIDs), even when the subject matter concerns death. That special form of reporting will, no doubt, help the credibility crisis troubling Nigeria’s coronavirus situation at present. For instance, with no other competing report, the newspaper, on pages 1 and 12, listed names and addresses of 1,000 of the 95,000 COVID-19 US deaths.

“They were not just numbers in our list, they were us,” the New York Times, declared, even as it had one or two things to write about each one of the victims. The front page special story had names, age and, at least, one peculiar attribute of each of the dead as shown in the following examples:

There was a Nigerian, Bassey Offiong, 25 from Michigan who “met the worst in people but brought out the best in them.” Or Frank Gabrin, “an emergency worker who died in husband’s arms,” Fred Grey who “liked his bacon and hash browns crispy,” Dante Flagello who’s greatest achievement was “his accomplishments with his wife.”There were fire fighters, storekeepers, people who brought smiles to people, a grandma who sang every school year to his grandchildren, a woman was in her church choir for 42 years.

The above publication by NYT reportedly elicited a very fundamental question from one of Nigeria’s editors, Lekan Otufodunrin, who sought to know if such a feat was “possible here.” While the answer appears to come easy, it is still not a straight yes-no question. The New York Times’ display is actually a matter of what social structure and open system can do. It is a question of whether journalism can actually go beyond health politics that overshadows the fight against EIDs.

Considering the controversies about number of cases in Nigeria, names and contacts of victims, whereabouts of the dead, and home addresses of survivors, one can imagine how far Nigeria might be from such feats. This piece does acknowledge that NYT was merely discharging its professional responsibility in news presentation and, therefore, may not need to be unnecessarily spotlighted. But it is difficult not to do so, considering especially the amount of work, phone call, research and professional/ patriotic dedication that went into the report. Not when one imagines that Nigerian health editors complain about lack of transport fares and internet data to reach venues of news events and to have access to the Internet.

This piece, therefore, tracks health information secrecy in Nigeria, and uses data from health editors to highlight the constraints of access to information. The write-up asks: What is responsible for the secrecy that surrounds COVID-19 communication in Nigeria? How can health editors help government to be more open about important facts on infectious disease outbreaks without offending extant rights and rules? The writing takes note of arguments and regulations on protection of patients and their relatives against stigmatisation through confidentiality of health records.

There is, however, growing concern that some kinds of secrecy around COVID-19 in Nigeria lead to citizen scepticism and poor responses to disease containment measures, thereby posing a big threat to the fight against EIDs (Iredia, 2020; Abati, 2020; Moshood, 2020). The piece argues that COVID-19 may have exposed the dire financial situation of the media in Nigeria, which poses huge challenge to reporting health emergencies. Profit, in the midst of market stress, is the reason that newspapers may be losing their gate-keeping birthright over social communication coordination. The situation has serious implications for presentation of full information that takes into account audience interests. (Grunig & Hunt, 1984; Grunig et al., 1995). It also has implications for social responsibility of the media (Basu and Palazzo, 2008; Sen, et al., 2006; Rochlin et al., 2005; Cornwell &Coote, 2005). While social responsibility is a debated issue with regard to media firms as private, profit-oriented ventures, periods of emergencies point out its inevitability to public interest reporting (Freeman &Liedtka, 1991; Agle et al., 1999).
To be continued tomorrow

Dr Mbamalu is the News Editor of The Guardian.


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