What happens when reality and political spin collide? Thanks to modern media and the internet, events happen in warp time. We get whiplash as we are bombarded with conflicting messages and daily changing public policies. So it is with the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. The results have been both comic and tragic. Many who believed the spinners who first downplayed the danger have failed to take the threat seriously enough to undertake personal precautions, gambling with their health, getting the affliction, and infecting the unaware. Others, driven by the fear of the unknown and without the availability of widespread testing, lose faith in the credibility and competence of the White House. They panic and hoard toilet paper.
What a difference a few weeks made. The unknown is fertile ground for spinners and there is plenty of unknown and misinformation to go around. In our bifurcated media world, those who exclusively listen to Fox and ilk or MSNBC or CNN and their ilk live on different planets. Stories they follow and the emphasis they give, opinions that are expressed by their pundits, are very different. The echo chambers that result, tweets retweeted, postings on social media and talking points voiced by their partisan politicians, are reflected in public polling. An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll reported March 15 that 68% of Democrats feared someone in their family would get the virus; only 40% of Republicans believed likewise. 80% of Democrats believed the crisis would get worse; only 40% of Republicans thought it would. In retrospect, what was reported by the liberal media for several weeks was a warning of what could happen in the US. A few weeks of denial later, Trump was reading from a teleprompter and declaring a national emergency.
It is not clear whether Trump’s media friends had been echoing the President or were writing his talking points for him. In any case, we were getting an earful from the FOX folks that this virus was not a big deal, no worse than any other flu, people die from flu all the time, and the hype of the “liberal media” coverage was a hoax Democrats had cooked it up to hurt Donald Trump in his re-election campaign. This was in spite of knowing what other countries were going through. This flu ‘s death rate experienced elsewhere is on the average ten times more than other flu epidemics, ranging as high as 14% for those over 80 years old who get the virus. Unlike other pandemics and epidemics we have experienced recently, there is no vaccine and no effective way to stop it once a person is infected, and no widespread testing yet in the US to know how many are already sick from it. The Trump administration believed their own spin and at first paid little attention to the preparatory work that was needed. Trump dithered at first, said the numbers would go to zero, like a miracle it would go away in April, offered a happy talk on tests, made a happy talk on the outbreak, ignored scientists, made this all about himself and his re-election, and then finally declared a national emergency. In a press conference on March 13, Trump played his “buck does not stop here” card. He took had no responsibility for disbanding in 2018 the National Security mechanism for coordinating an early response to pandemics like Ebola. Voters may yet hold him responsible in November. for his misleading the public and his slow start. The newest forecast from the White House is the “crisis, may last into July or August”.
We have heard of historical comparisons to COVID-19 to other mega pandemics. There are certain advantages of my living so long, but still vivid in my memory bank was the polio epidemic of the late 1940s when I was in elementary school and before Salk and his miracle vaccine freed us from fear. Like the 1940’s polio, COVID- 19 has no vaccine and no medicines to stop its progression. We can only treat the symptoms and avoid those who are infected. We did not call it social distancing then, but we did it. In sweltering summers of eastern Oklahoma, we were not able to go to swimming pools or to cool off in air-cooled movie theaters. We could only play with our neighborhood gang. We did not complain. We did not try to avoid the rules. One look at the pictures in Life Magazine of children lying in rows of iron lungs was enough to put the fear of God in us. It worked. Our neighborhood gang escaped the disease. The irony has not escaped me. As a child, I was the most vulnerable to polio; as a person well over 60, I am once again the most vulnerable to another deadly epidemic and I am socially distancing myself with a vengeance. For more, visit