This is what Donald Trump’s critics feared most. A nation on the brink of emergency. A moment when his half-truths and bumbling could have deadly consequences.
But the arrival of the new coronavirus is not just a test of the president’s leadership. It’s a test of the whole fractured, paranoid culture that elevated him to power.
It’s a test of our increasingly brittle bonds.
We live in a moment of profound distrust. Of deep suspicion of the other side. What we believe is less and less a matter of hard evidence — or shared national values — and more and more a byproduct of our increasingly rigid political allegiances.
If President Trump says it, many of his supporters believe, then it must be right.
The trouble is that much of what President Trump has said about the coronavirus is wrong — or, at least, highly speculative. He’s said the number of cases is going “very substantially down,” when they were actually going up. He’s declared that the coronavirus will “miraculously” disappear in the spring. He’s asked whether the flu vaccine could be used to slow the outbreak. And he’s questioned the World Health Organization’s estimate for the virus’s mortality rate, swapping in a lower figure based on his own “hunch.”
It’s not just our political tribalism that the coronavirus could exploit.
When the 1918 flu cut its deadly path across America, pastors joined local public health committees, and Boy Scouts distributed posters with health information to stores, offices, and factories. It’s hard to imagine a similar mobilization of civil society today.
The Internet will make up for some of the deficit in community organizing — distributing news and advice with a speed that was inconceivable a century ago. But, as the last few years have made painfully clear, it can also be rocket fuel for misinformation and distrust.
The World Health Organization is already warning about a coronavirus “infodemic” — an overwhelming deluge of information, some of it false, "that makes it hard for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when they need it.”
Some of the bogus stuff flying around the Internet is just misinformed rumor. But some of it is darker — suggesting deep-state conspiracies to spread the virus or deploying racist tropes to explain its origins.
And given the president’s penchant for linking foreigners to disease — he once said Haitians “all have AIDS” and in recent weeks, he flirted with closing the Mexican border to slow the spread of coronavirus, even though it seemed to be more of a problem in the United States than south of the border — it’s easy to see how the conversation could grow uglier in the coming months.
How it could even give way to violence.
The coronavirus, it seems, is perfectly engineered to exploit America’s weaknesses. It’s fast-moving. It thrives on misinformation. And if we’re not careful, it could do lasting damage not just to our health, but to our democracy.
THE FLU PANDEMIC of 1918 was a brutal killer.
It left mahogany spots on its victims’ cheek bones. Streaks of blue started at their ears and crept across their faces. Sometimes, foamy blood would pour from their mouths just before they died.
“It is horrible,” wrote Roy Grist, a doctor at Camp Devens, an Army training base outside Boston that was walloped at the start of the flu’s deadly second wave. “For several days there were no coffins and the bodies piled up something fierce.”
The flu killed some 50 million to 100 million people worldwide and 670,000 in the United States. There were plenty of lessons from this horrific time, says John Barry, author of “The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History.”
But the most important? “It’s pretty clear. Tell the truth.”
The country was especially averse to painful truths when the flu struck. The United States had just joined World War I and Congress had approved the Sedition Act, making it punishable by 20 years in prison to “utter, print, write or publish any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language about the form of government of the United States.”
National morale felt paramount. And as the flu descended, local health officials took it upon themselves to downplay the seriousness of the situation.
The press played along. In Philadelphia, Barry says, reporters wrote stories about the dangers of thousands of people gathering at a coming parade. But editors refused to print them. The largest parade in the city’s history went ahead and shortly thereafter, the flu erupted. More than 12,500 died in Philadelphia, their bodies lying on the streets for days. Many of them were eventually rolled into mass graves.
With no reliable information in Philadelphia or elsewhere, Barry says, a national panic set in. People resorted to bogus cures. And they refused increasingly desperate calls for help nursing the sick or caring for orphaned children.
The broad information suppression that stoked these problems a century ago would be impossible today. Our media ecosystem is too fractured and too feisty. What Fox News plays down, MSNBC will play up.
But that fracture creates real vulnerabilities. A news consumer subsumed in a conservative echo chamber could get a distorted view of the dangers of the new public health threat.
Talk show host Rush Limbaugh has declared that “the coronavirus is the common cold” and argued that it “is being weaponized as yet another element to bring down Donald Trump.” Pete Hegseth, on the Fox News talk show “Fox & Friends,” said Democrats and the media are "rooting for coronavirus to spread” so it will hurt the president. And Trump himself continues to downplay the risks.
On a recent appearance on Sean Hannity’s show on Fox, he appeared to suggest that it’s fine for people with coronavirus to go to work: “So if, you know, we have thousands or hundreds of thousands of people that get better, just by, you know, sitting around and even going to work — some of them go to work but they get better.”
When he faced criticism for the comment, the president blamed Democrats and the media for twisting his words, tweeting: “I NEVER said people that are feeling sick should go to work.”
But his statement, whatever its intent, clearly ran counter to the advice of doctors, who have urged people with even mild symptoms to stay home.
The danger, here, is that a significant slice of the president’s supporters will decline to take precautions that could slow the virus — or will delay testing when they get sick.
That could hasten the spread of the coronavirus disease, Covid-19, putting thousands of lives at risk and, quite possibly, encouraging a panic.
IN THE LATE summer of 1987, someone burned the Rays’ house to the ground.
The family’s three sons, all hemophiliacs, were infected with HIV — likely through tainted blood products. And a parent-led boycott had left the boys’ classrooms half empty.
The family received death threats. Bomb threats. And the arson looked like a final attempt to run the Rays out of their hometown, Arcadia, Fla. It worked.
“Arcadia is no longer our home,” said the boys’ father, Clifford Ray, at a news conference the day after. “That was made clear to us last night.”
The AIDS panic of the late ’80s spawned acts of violence all over the country. Beatings. Murders. And there were all sorts of humiliations, too: The motorist who called a Chicago AIDS clinic asking how to disinfect his car after running over a gay man; the Washington, D.C., police officers who raided a gay social club wearing face masks and bulletproof vests to protect themselves from the "lethal threat” of HIV.
Laurie Garrett, author of “The Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases in a World Out of Balance,” fears something similar if the new coronavirus takes off.
“We can hope — I suppose, hope against hope” that the country will come together in the face of an epidemic, she says. “It’s just that in my own history — of 30 epidemics I’ve been in around the world — something about the fear of contagion strikes a very visceral, and often truly ugly, chord in humanity.”
There are efforts underway to curb that ugliness.
In recent weeks, Facebook, Google, and Twitter have taken steps to stem the tide of dangerous misinformation about coronavirus — steering users away from conspiracy theories and false remedies and toward authoritative sources such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
But there are limits to what the online giants can do to combat bad information. It can live on in private Facebook groups that are hard to track.
And it can spread, in these subterranean channels, at alarming rates.
Neil Johnson, a physicist at George Washington University, has constructed a sprawling map of the online battle between vaccination advocates and the “anti-vaxxers” who traffic in debunked theories about the ill effects of the shots.
And he found that, while the anti-vaxxers he studies may be smaller in number, they are better-positioned to get their message out.
They’re sharing their vaccine-skeptical Facebook posts with friends and neighbors who attend the same church or belong to the same swim club. And that gives them a leg up on distant, pro-vaccine groups like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Johnson found that, during a measles outbreak at the end of last year that prompted wide interest in vaccines, the anti-vaxxer clusters he was tracking online grew much faster than the pro-vaccine clusters. And the anti-vaxxers, he says, could overtake the pro-vaccine forces in a matter of years if their growth goes unchecked.
Johnson says the Facebook groups he monitors are already spreading coronavirus conspiracy theories — many of them tinged with the xenophobia that has become such a potent force in American politics.
Graham Brookie is the director of the Digital Forensic Research Lab at the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based think tank. He works to expose and explain online disinformation. And he says we’re at a critical moment in the public understanding of coronavirus.
“Right when awareness is hitting a critical mass, right when the topic is fresh,” he says, “there’s the potential for catastrophically misleading information to gain a huge amount of traction.”
And the real-world consequences, he says, could be stark.
A couple of weeks ago, a fake email claiming to be from the Ukrainian health ministry asserted that a group of evacuees from China, brought to a spa in the town of Novi Sanzhary, were infected with the virus.
Dozens of local protesters descended on buses carrying the evacuees — and they attacked.
OF COURSE, IT’S possible that the coronavirus never turns into the epidemic that public health officials fear.
It’s possible that the Trump administration, despite its early struggles, gets a handle on the outbreak. That local officials, who are the backbone of America’s public health system, wrestle it to the ground. That the mortality rate is not as high as early estimates suggest.
That would be great news. It would mean thousands of lives spared and trillions of dollars of wealth preserved.
But it would also mean another talking point for the Trumpian echo chamber: The president, they’ll say, was right all along. The Democrats were just scoring points. And the media was overhyping the coronavirus, they’ll claim, just as it overhyped Russian interference in the 2016 presidential campaign and the Ukrainian affair.
You can’t trust the “experts,” they’ll say. You have to rely on your own truth.
It might be a relatively harmless delusion. At least for a time. But it will continue to stoke America’s divisions.
And when the next virus comes along — a more potent one — it could be truly dangerous.
Correction: An earlier version of this story said the Boy Scouts distributed posters, during the 1918 flu epidemic, about the ultimately ineffective vaccines from that period. The posters included general health information.