Covering the Corona Outbreak: Safety procedures for journalists

The COVID-19 virus (also known as novel coronavirus) is now present across every continent, excluding Antarctica, according to data from the World Health Organization (WHO)

The WHO declared the outbreak a Public Health Emergency of International Concern on January 31, 2020; raised its global risk assessment from “high” to “very high” on February 28, and subsequently declared a pandemic on March 11, according to news reports. A large number of countries have imposed restrictions on travelers or are locked down entirely, according to A regularly updated WHO map showing the global distribution of cases can be seen hereAs the situation evolves and new information emerges, updated health advice and outbreak news will be issued by the relevant authorities. To keep up-to-date, journalists covering the outbreak should monitor the WHO, the U.S.-based Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Public Health England (PHE).

Journalists who are planning to cover the COVID-19 outbreak should consider the following safety information, and keep up to date with all of the latest developments and restrictions. Be aware that any assignment, be it domestic based or overseas, is highly likely to change with little or no notice due to a fast moving and rapidly evolving situation.

The death toll of the novel coronavirus recently surpassed that of Sars.

Pre-AssignmentAccording to the CDC, older people and individuals with underlying health conditions are considered high risk. If you fall into such categories, you should not participate in the assignment. Consideration should also be given to any employees who are pregnantThere have been incidents of racist attacks against certain nationalities, according to BuzzFeed, a factor to consider when selecting staff for any assignment. Increased levels of hostility and prejudice should also be taken into account. Regularly check the status of any event you plan on attending, taking into account that numerous countries have banned public gatherings above a certain number of people. Be aware of misinformation, something that the WHO has specifically warned about and that the BBC has highlighted. A myth buster guide is available on the WHO website. If travel to an affected country is possible, ensure all relevant vaccinations and disease prophylaxis are up-to-date for your destination. Consider getting the flu vaccine to prevent confusion over any symptoms you may develop. Discuss what plans your management team has in place to assist and support you should you fall ill while on assignment, taking into account the possibility of self-isolation and/or being grounded in a quarantine/lockdown zone. Consider what supplies you may need to take with you. Shortages of certain items have been reported along with incidents of panic buying, including face masks, hand sanitizers, soap, canned food, and toilet paper. Research the latest security situation in your destination. To date there have been isolated violent incidents in Cyprus, Reunion and Ukraine, with ongoing protests in both Iraq and Hong Kong being exacerbated by the COVID-19 outbreak.

This interactive map provided by Johns Hopkins shows you where every reported coronavirus case in the world is located and how many people have died. (Source: Johns Hopkins).

Consider the potential psychological impact of reporting from an area affected by COVID-19, especially if reporting from a medical or isolation facility, or quarantine zone. A useful resource for media workers covering traumatic situations can be found via the DART Center for Journalism and Trauma. Family members may be concerned and stressed about such assignments. Have a discussion with them about the risks and their concerns. If necessary, set up a conversation between family members and your organization’s medical advisers. Be aware that some organizations and employers have increased their evacuation preparedness level for any personnel based in affected countries.

Digital Security

Pay attention to your digital security, noting that scammers and hackers are reportedly targeting individuals with phishing emails related to COVID-19, according to Norton, a cyber safety company. Be aware of apps that target individuals for ransomware, such as COVID-19 Tracker. Exercise caution when clicking on any COVID-19 related links on social media, some of which may direct you to sites that infect devices with malware. Be alert to the risks posed by reporting on and/or from countries with authoritarian regimes, which will likely be closely monitoring coverage of the COVID-19 outbreak. Certain governments may try to conceal the extent of any outbreak, censor the media accordingly, and/or take punitive action against those who report otherwise. Journalists may face increased levels of online trolling relating to any COVID-19 articles, particularly on social media.

 Travel Planning

Check your travel insurance policy. Some governments have issued varying levels of travel advice and alerts against heading to an increasing number of countries. This includes the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the U.S. State Department, and the French Affaires Etrangeres. Be aware that obtaining cover for COVID-19 related travel may not be possible going forward. Check on any existing and/or upcoming travel bans for your intended destination. Additional bans and/or restrictions on foreign nationals are likely to be put in place going forward. Ensure you have a contingency plan in place, taking into account that urban centers, specific regions, and/or entire countries can be locked down and quarantined with little or no notice. Be aware that an increasing number of land borders have been closed. Additional closures are likely going forward, something that should be factored into your contingency planning. Do not travel if you are sick. Most international and regional airports, as well as other transportation hubs, have implemented strict health screening measures. Travelers are likely to face testing and/or enforced quarantine/self-isolation on arrival. You should purchase fully refundable flight tickets. COVID-19 is causing significant financial distress for many airlines, according to IATA, and is said to have contributed to the recent collapse of Europe’s biggest regional airline FlyBe. Be aware that global travel options have massively reduced in recent weeks due to airlines cancelling flights to/from many destinations. Further cancellations are likely as cases of COVID-19 increase significantly in more countries. Keep up to date with any changes to your point of arrival. Countries such as Saudi Arabia and Russia will only allow certain nationalities to enter at particular airports and terminals. Check on the latest visa situation for your destination, noting that numerous countries have suspended visas that have already been issued for travel. Check if your destination country requires a medical certificate to prove you are COVID-19 free. Some examples can be seen here. Maintain flexible itineraries and allow additional time at airports around the world, taking into account health screening measures and temperature check points. The same applies at some railway stations, ports/docks, and long-haul bus stations.

The volume of air traffic connections between each African country and Chinese regions heavily impacted by the virus.

Face Masks

The CDC and WHO are in agreement that it is not necessary for people without symptoms to wear masks, unless you are told to by the local authorities; you are in a high-risk area such as a hospital; or you are taking care of a person with suspected COVID-19 infection. If you do wear a mask you should follow this advice: If necessary, an N95 mask (or FFP2 / FFP3) is recommended over a standard ‘surgical’ mask. Ensure that the mask fits securely over the bridge of the nose and chin, minimizing gaps in the fit. Ensure facial hair is removed and maintained. Avoid touching the mask, and only remove it by using the straps. Never touch the front. Always wash hands with soap and hot water, or with an alcohol-based hand sanitizer (greater than 60% ethanol or 70% isopropanol) after removing the mask. Replace the mask with a new, clean dry mask as soon as it becomes damp/humid.

CPJ’s online Safety Kit provides journalists and newsrooms with basic safety information on physical, digital, and psychological safety resources and tools, including on covering civil unrest and elections.

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