A ‘mystery SARS-like illness’. How did Australian news outlets cover the COVID-19 outbreak when it first emerged in early 2020?

An empty Sydney Opera House forecourt due to Australia’s ban on international travel

25 January 2021 marks a year since the first cases of COVID-19 were identified in Australia. As part of a social history I am writing of the first year of the COVID crisis in Australia, I have been investigating how Australian press outlets first reported on the novel coronavirus and COVID-19. As sociologists and media studies researchers have shown, the ways in which news reports ‘frame’ new health risks are important to publics’ understandings and feelings of personal risk, particularly in the early stages when few other information sources are available.

Major infectious disease outbreaks are highly newsworthy. In Australia and most other countries, COVID has received saturation coverage for much of the past year. As with most new health risks, the news media were vital sources of information about this new disease for Australians and the rest of the world.

With the benefit of hindsight now that we are one year on from the first reports of the pandemic and seen cases grow globally to over 100 million and confirmed deaths of over 2 million, analysing local news reports gives us an insight into how Australians first learnt about the novel coronavirus and what details they were given. We can identify the genesis of the Australian response to the COVID crisis and see which authorities received most attention in news reports.

Back in January 2020, no-one knew anything about the novel coronavirus and the disease it caused.

It was on the last day of 2019 that Chinese officials released a media statement on their website about unusual cases of ‘viral pneumonia’ in the city of Wuhan, central China, which was then picked up by the World Health Organization (WHO). For the entire month of January, we didn’t even have names for the coronavirus and the disease it caused. (It was not until 11 February that WHO bestowed the official names of SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19.)

At first, a new disease emerging far away in central China bore comparatively little newsworthiness for Australians. January was a month in which the ‘Black Summer’ of bushfires was preoccupying the Australian news media. The volume of news reports began with a trickle but increased dramatically with the rapid developments in the outbreak. January began with the first-ever report in the Australian press about the new outbreak, with at least 30 confirmed cases in Wuhan, and ended with the World Health Organization (WHO) officially declaring the novel coronavirus to be a global health emergency of international concern. By this time, 9,320 confirmed cases had been reported to WHO, including 98 outside China.

This was a period when scientists, medical experts and public health officials were urgently attempting to understand what was causing the outbreak, how infectious and fatal it was and how best to contain its spread.

Health authorities had been warning for years that a serious pandemic was imminent in the wake of the SARS pandemic. SARS, first identified in China in 2002, was the most serious new global viral outbreak prior to 2020. Australia was unaffected by the SARS outbreak, with only one case identified. It was largely agreed among public health researchers that Australia was fortunate to have escaped its impact.

The resonances of SARS as it was experienced in China and other Asian countries were evident in the first reports about COVID in the Australian press. The first story was published on news.com.au (2 January) bearing the headline ‘China on high alert following outbreak of SARS-like virus’. From the very start, therefore, the new virus was described as starting in China and comparisons were drawn to SARS. The report further noted that at least 30 cases had been identified in the city of Wuhan and there was already concern in China and neighbouring countries in Asia that it could spark an epidemic as serious as SARS. The new disease was described as resembling SARS in that it was serious respiratory disease with pneumonia or flu-like symptoms and some people were in a critical condition. It was reported that some of the infected worked at a fresh produce market (wet market) in Wuhan and the new virus could potentially be a zoonotic coronavirus: again, similar to the origin of SARS. The report further outlined that infected people were in quarantine and their close contacts were under observation.

Throughout January, Australian news outlets continued to refer to the ‘mystery SARS-like illness’. As more became known about the infectious nature of the new virus and its fatality rate, reporters began referring to the ‘deadly’ virus. There were constant references as well to the ‘China virus’ as well as the Wuhan wet market where it was believed the virus had initially transferred from an animal host to a human. Articles were typically illustrated with images of Chinese people in Wuhan or other locations: often wearing surgical masks.

In the first weeks of reporting, therefore, the new outbreak was presented as the product of exotic or even alien cultural practices and a problem in China or neighbouring countries, but not a threat to Australia.

Two days later, on 4 January, some reports were picked up from the international news agencies Associate Press and Reuters and the Australian news agency AAP (Australian Associated Press) and published in a handful of Australian news outlets. These stories noted that there had now been 44 cases identified in China and this pneumonia-like disease had yet to be identified but that Chinese officials were investigating. It was further reported that Hong Kong was particularly worried about the potential impact of the new virus, based on its previous experience of the SARS outbreak, and had intensified its response accordingly: ‘Hong Kong fears over mystery China illness’ (Canberra Times, 4 January). A report published in the Sydney Morning Herald on 5 January recounted that the World Health Organisation had now begun an investigation of the outbreak.

Hong Kong’s response continued to be covered in a few articles on 6 and 7 January, with headlines continuing to refer to ‘fear’ and referring to ‘millions’ now at risk from the new disease: ‘Mystery disease threatens millions’ (news.com.au, 6 January); ‘China mystery illness: travellers checked as officials fear lunar new year could spread bug’ (The Guardian Australia, 7 January).

News outlets by 7 January referred to 59 cases now in Wuhan. It was noted in The Guardian article that ‘Wuhan officials said there was no “clear” evidence of human-to-human transmission’ and also that SARS, MERS and avian flu had been ruled out as the viruses involved in this outbreak. This report also provided a map showing the location of Wuhan in China, and a list of the types of live animals and wild meat sold in the Wuhan wet market, including birds, snakes, deer and groundhogs.

By 9 January, with the cluster of cases exceeding 50, a little more had been learnt about this ‘mystery disease’. This included information that Chinese researchers had sequenced the virus and confirmed that the new viral pneumonia was not SARS but possibly a new type of coronavirus like SARS and MERS (‘Mystery illness in southern China identified as a new coronavirus’, The Australian).

Also that day, for the first time, an Australian angle was broached in one news reported published in The Daily Telegraph. It described concerns by the women’s Olympic soccer team, the Matildas, in relation to the Olympic qualifiers scheduled to take place in Wuhan in early February. The next day, an article in The Guardian Australia highlighted global experts’ fears about the potential threat of ‘China’s Sars-like illness’, noting that the ‘viral pneumonia outbreak may have jumped species barrier, raising fears of pandemic’.

There was then a lull of a few days in news on the mystery illness. This was broken on 15 January by abc.news.com, which published a Reuters/AAP story about WHO warning the new outbreak could spread globally. This prediction by WHO was almost immediately shown to be accurate, as news outlets reported on 16 and 17 January that a small number of cases had been identified in Japan and Thailand and that two people had now died from the disease.

It was not until 17 January that the possibility that the new virus could reach Australia was first mentioned. An article published on news.com.au quoted the views of Australian epidemiologists that human-to-human transmission of the coronavirus now appeared to be occurring. By 19 January, China had confirmed 139 new cases and that these had spread to Beijing but some news reports suggested that China may be attempting to obscure the real number of cases and how far they had spread through the country. Western health experts and researcher estimated that the real number could be much higher (‘China “downplaying the spread of the new virus”’, The Australian, 19 January).

Meanwhile, in The Sydney Morning Herald, Chief Medical Officer Dr Brendan Murphy began to appear in news outlets as government spokesperson for matters related to the outbreak. He was quoted as reassuring Australians that ‘while the spike in numbers warranted close attention, there was “no cause for alarm in Australia”’ (‘“No cause for alarm” in Australia as new coronavirus cases emerge in China’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 19 January).

It was on 20 January that coverage in Australian news outlets started to increase in number, with a growing awareness that action needed to be taken to prevent the novel coronavirus from entering Australia and spreading across the country. Reporters were still referring to a ‘mysterious virus’, the ‘unknown SARS-like virus’ or in the case of The Daily Telegraph’s headline that day, the ‘noxious new bug’. Following other countries, Australian health officials had decided to start screening Wuhan arrivals to Sydney for symptoms suggesting that they may have been infected with the novel coronavirus (‘Australia acts to stop China virus spreading on flights’, news.com.au, 20 January). Dr Murphy was quoted again as saying, ‘The situation warrants close attention and an evidence-based response’ but that again ‘there is no cause for alarm in Australia’ and that Australia had ‘well established mechanisms’ to deal with travellers entering the country with viral symptoms (‘Flight of fear over noxious new bug’, Daily Telegraph, 20 January).

Explainers about the novel coronavirus began appearing in the news media, such as abc.news.au’s ‘What is a coronavirus and why is a new virus strain making people in China so sick?’ (20 January). Such articles were accompanied by images showing the magnified appearance of a typical coronavirus, with its characteristic ‘crown’ of spikes that has since become so familiar.

By 21 January, news outlets reported that four people had died in China and the number of cases had passed 220 worldwide, with most cases in Wuhan but others identified in other parts of China as well as Japan, South Korea and Thailand. References in headlines to Australian health officials monitoring coronavirus as ‘number of cases triple’ (The Age) or even ‘suddenly quadruple’ (news.com.au) and ‘How coronavirus may conquer the world’ (The Australian) drew attention to rapid increases in infections and the potential risk globally.

Also on 21 January, concerns about the threat to Australia began to intensify with the news that a man from Brisbane (referred to in several headlines as an ‘Aussie’) who had returned from Wuhan with potential symptoms had been placed in quarantine and tested for the novel coronavirus but had been found to be negative. In response to this potential case, Queensland Chief Health Officer Jeannette Young became a new expert source who had declared the virus to be ‘a public health incident of state significance’ (‘Brisbane man being tested for contagious SARS-like virus, Courier-Mail). In these remarks, we can see the beginning of a state-based response to the novel coronavirus outbreak that in later stages of the pandemic began to strongly influence the ways that different states and territories and even cities or regions separately dealt with clusters.

The wider implications for Australia of this outbreak were beginning to be recognised, leading to Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison to begin to make public comments about it. For example, in an article with the headline, ‘Fears of China virus pandemic hit home’ published in The Australian on 21 January, it was reported that Australian health authorities are ‘on alert’ and that Brendan Murphy had formally alerted Australian parliament to ‘a human coronavirus with pandemic potential’. This alert in turn authorised Australian Border Force and other government officials to isolate people at airports if they presented with coronavirus symptoms and to test them for the virus. It was noted in The Australian article that Morrison was attempting to assuage fears and made particular mention of the advice given to him by Dr Murphy that ‘health authorities were not dealing with an outbreak like the 2003 SARS virus … “It’s a different level of gravity”’.

The situation and level of urgency changed again on 25 January.

This was the day that the first Australian cases of the novel coronavirus infection were reported. There were four cases, all of whom were incoming travellers from China. One case was in Victoria while the other three were in NSW. Headlines now noted that infection now ‘reaches Australia’ (The Guardian Australia), ‘Chinese coronavirus hits Melbourne’ (The Herald Sun) and ‘Four Aussie cases of coronavirus as more tested’ (The Daily Telegraph).

Australia is one of the most successful countries in terms of controlling the spread of COVID in its first year. These news reports demonstrated that Australian officials at the highest level were alert to the potential threat of the outbreak and were making appropriate preparations while simultaneously attempting to avoid mass panic or direct comparisons with SARS. For the large part, although there was some concern expressed in the Australian press about the possibility that China may be down-playing the crisis, there was very little evidence of overt racism or blaming discourse, even in the tabloid press. Headlines often relied on attention-seeking discourses of fear and the unknown, but in the content of the news reports, journalists mostly attempted to avoid panic and provide information from expert sources and officials.

As this analysis of these reports from January 2020 have shown, Australian officials acted early and appropriately to the growing awareness that this new infectious disease could constitute a threat to Australians. This type of reporting has contributed to Australia’s successful fight against COVID.

SHARP Professor and leader of the Vitalities Lab, University of New South Wales (UNSW) Sydney