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To Fear the Coronavirus, the Media, or Xenophobia?

Nick Hankoff Comments

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Despite repeated warnings from legacy media, it seems xenophobia is breaking out as rapidly as the coronavirus. Anecdotal reports of Asians being denied Uber and Lyft rides are adding fog to an already uncertain situation, but there are clear lessons to be drawn for advocates of free market libertarianism.

The worldwide coronavirus figures as of Tuesday are 425 dead and 20,438 confirmed cases, mostly all in China. In the U.S., there are six cases in California, two in Illinois, and one in each of the following states: Arizona, Washington, and Massachusetts. No Americans have died so far.

Reading up on the latest, one can’t ignore a couple of patterns in the media, and these patterns matter to how an open market functions. 

First, many news reports often downplay the severity of the virus. Note that the media almost never calms down its audience when the subject is trivial political drama like impeachment, which has less bearing on the real world than a contagion of national and international proportions. The ploy in this instance is to compare coronavirus to seasonal influenza as if to shrug off the top global story.  

The second pattern might help explain the first. It has to do with the perceived threat of rising racism and xenophobia, mostly emanating from the “bat soup” meme, which is based on a rumor of the viral breakout’s origin. For example, Health.com ran with the headline “No, Coronavirus Was Not Caused by ‘Bat Soup’–But Here’s What Researchers Think May Be to Blame.”

It turns out, however, that the scientific consensus isn’t too far off from the internet meme. Researchers point to bats and/or snakes passing it on to humans, and both of those animals are sold in the notorious Wuhan wet market in China for human consumption. 

Underlying both of these media narratives is the ever-present competition from alternative media outlets that are constantly under a barrage of censorship attacks from the elite social media platforms. Many of those alternative outlets are viewed and shared in libertarian or right-leaning networks, which are increasingly concerned with globalization and immigration.

It is plain to see that there is a business interest as well as a cultural or political one at play behind most media narratives. Thankfully, there are populist forces that will eventually put an end to this top-down manipulation of public information.

Now CNBC is reporting on Uber and Lyft drivers refusing or reluctantly accepting Asian passengers. Perhaps it’s ironic that the same article downplays the threat of the coronavirus but plays up the racial tensions without a second thought.

The media’s phobia of xenophobia isn’t genuine but instead serves as a bludgeon against any argument in favor of private property-based free market solutions. Why, if average people were left to their own devices, their ignorance and racism would doom us all, we’re told.

Of course, it’s the government (mis)management of public health responsibilities that lets things get this bad in the first place. On the other hand, the wet market in Wuhan, China must not be excused by libertarians. Bat soup might just be a bad idea, whether or not it’s regulated by a state.

A free market should be strengthened beyond simple atomistic individualism, by means of developing or rejuvenating civil institutional frameworks that help us protect and conserve our quality of life and societal cohesion.

Racism isn’t what we should fear in letting loose hundreds of millions of Americans to make free choices. Rather, we should concern ourselves with disconnected, loyalty-free consumers who continue to lap up legacy media propaganda, because it happens to be offered at the lowest price.

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