Anthony Zhou

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What does media sensationalism say about our ability to fight pandemics?

An essay describing the reasons we should feel hopeful for our ability to persevere and help others amidst a global pandemic.

Chaos. Everything I see is a blur of red and gray: people in the streets doubled over in pain, hacking up fresh crimson blood, ambulances rushing back and forth, only serving to move the bodies from one hellish place to another; and the uninfected, hoping that if they walk fast enough the horror will never catch up with them.

It's a scene from a movie, but I can't quite remember what it's about — maybe I'll think of it later. I switch off the television and nearly jump in shock at what I hear next in the real world, right at this moment:


After a while, my ears adjust. Through the open window, I begin to hear again. The serenity of the neighborhood's sounds are comforting: the call of a mockingbird, the gentle bubbling of a creek, and the giggles of children as they struggle to rein in their new puppies while wearing rollerblades. The weather is marvelous, and a gentle breeze wafts by me with the scent of fresh blossoms.

The gentle hope of springtime leads me to start thinking and asking questions. I sit down to write.

At this historic moment, many of us are experiencing a confusing dichotomy of information: on one side, the media bombards us with warnings and horror and acute respiratory distress syndrome. Meanwhile, the reality of living in isolation, at least for those of us in suburbia, is almost unnervingly peaceful. What can we make of this disparity?

First, it reflects our desire for sensationalist content. As the notable psychologist Daniel Kahneman has pointed out, our brains value coherence over statistical facts. In an increasingly competitive industry, even our most trusted news sources have no choice but to tell increasingly visceral stories, at the expense of more rational viewpoints. However, their attempts to remain relevant are rooted in a desire to share necessary information, a task they fulfill admirably. Journalists help us make sense of an overly complex world.

Here is the disconnect: from hunter-gatherers eaten by lions to medieval serfs being beaten to death, we are born from a place of violence. Yet the world we are born into is safer than ever before, across the board, from criminal justice to modern medicine. The reminders of death and suffering, so frequent we become desensitized, are just a small red blotch on the large white canvas of the world: as we work to address the startling horror of this new disease, we must take moments to step back and take in the remarkable tranquility of our world, to see how far we've come.

Pause the television for a moment and listen to the silence. Only then will you begin to hear again.

Yes, we've got plenty of problems left to solve: disease, war, and climate change, to name a few. And some have it much worse than others — inequality is a vice that must be ended. But, as history demonstrates, we have endless reasons to be hopeful, to realize that the disparity between television violence and real-world tranquility is a blessing for hope in our long and dangerous fight against this virus. The same gap should make us resolve to help in any way possible, because the marvels of modern innovation have shown us what can be accomplished through collective social action. Instead of helplessness or indifference, those of us who experience peace during these unprecedented times can channel hope and optimism to make a difference.

I remember what the movie was about now. It tells a story of finding the bright side in a seemingly desolate world. It's a movie about hope.

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