A political talk show on the SET News channel has sparked public outrage after it referred to a COVID-19 variant that is spreading in the nation as the “Wanhua virus” (萬華病毒).
Taipei’s Wanhua District (萬華) has been severely affected by an outbreak since a cluster infection was detected in the area last month.
The National Communications Commission (NCC) said it has received 26 complaints about broadcast media coverage of the outbreak since the Central Epidemic Command Center raised the COVID-19 warning in Taipei and New Taipei City to level 3 on May 15.
Photo courtesy of Freddy Lim’s legislative office
Eight of the complaints were about an episode of the SET News political talk show New Taiwan Refueling (新台灣加油) that aired on Tuesday night.
“What the nation needs the most at this difficult time is to stand united and fight the virus together, but the program used the phrase ‘Wanhua virus’ in a headline and invited guests with no experience in public health to comment on the community infection in Wanhua,” one viewer told the NCC.
“The TV program abused its influence over the direction of public opinion, and completely disregarded journalism ethics and its social responsibility. As a broadcast media regulator, the NCC should examine the case immediately,” they said.
The viewer also said that the WHO, the World Organisation for Animal Health, and the Food and Agriculture Organization in 2015 established the principle that the names of newly discovered diseases should not include geographic locations, names of people, occupations, animals or food, or “terms that incite undue fear.”
The commission said it would forward the complaints to an independent content review committee, which would examine recorded materials prepared by the NCC.
Independent Legislator Freddy Lim (林昶佐), who represents Taipei’s Zhongzheng (中正) and Wanhua districts, said his constituents told him that they were puzzled and angry at Wanhua suddenly becoming the origin of the virus, given that the outbreak was first detected in Wuhan, China, and the variant affecting Taiwan came from the UK.
Lin also accused Want Want China Times Group of discriminating against employees who live in Wanhua, saying that the company has arranged them to work on the same floor and in the same conference room, and has barred them from accessing break rooms.
“We received a tip that the media group looks at employees from Wanhua as a plague and treats them as if they are in concentration camps. However, it did not regulate access to the building as part of disease prevention efforts, such as asking employees to use separate entrances or elevators when entering or leaving the office,” Lin said.
Central and local government officials should investigate the allegations, as such practices are not only discriminatory, but they also increase the risks of contagion, he said.
Holy Mosquito, an online group formed by supporters of Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je (柯文哲), asked why the variant was called the “Wanhua virus,” and not “Novotel virus” or “311 virus.”
The group was referring to the Novotel Taipei Taoyuan International Airport hotel, where the UK variant first spread through a community infection involving China Airlines pilots. The pilots were allowed to undergo a shortened quarantine period of only three days followed by 11 days of self-health management, as opposed to 14 days of quarantine and seven days of self-health management for travelers arriving from a foreign country.
Sanlih Entertainment Television, which owns SET News, issued an apology, saying its intention was not to cause chaos or vilify Wanhua residents.
The network also issued a correction in yesterday’s episode of the talk show and said the incident would be reviewed by its own news ethics committee.
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