The Misinformation About Coronavirus Coming From the White House Must Cease

Public Domain: NIAID Rocky Mountain Laboratories (RML), U.S. NIH

On Friday, President Trump declared an emergency over the outbreak of Covid-19 sweeping across the United States and the world. One of the major points of his speech was to emphasize that the United States government is working with major corporations to quickly deploy testing capabilities across the United States. To that end, Trump said:

Google is going to develop a website — it’s going to be very quickly done, unlike websites of the past — to determine if a test is warranted and to facilitate testing at a nearby convenient location,” Trump said. “We have many, many locations behind us, by the way. We cover this country and large parts of the world, by the way. We’re not gonna be talking about the world right now, but we cover very, very strongly our country. Stores in virtually every location. Google has 1,700 engineers working on this right now. They have made tremendous progress.

Trump’s comments were backed up by Dr. Deborah Birx, described by Ars Technica as “a key official in the administration’s Coronavirus Response Coordinator.” According to Birx, “We wanted to also announce this new approach to testing,” she said, “which will start in this screening website facilitated by Google.” The only problem was, as of Friday, basically none of this was true. Google released a statement saying as much at the time, shown below:

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The app portal that President Trump told Americans would be “very quickly done,” is only in the early stage of development. It’s only intended to be tested in the Bay Area. The Google engineers assisting with the project are doing so voluntarily and no Google or Alphabet employees actually spoke at the unveiling.

Later, on Sunday, Google and Verily did make additional announcements — but they aren’t exactly shipping the programs that the White House said they would be. Verily has issued a press release confirming its limited Bay Area testing setup, while Google is working with the government to provide a clearing-house information site, but not the app portal that was described on Friday.

Having been caught with his pants down on the topic, the President is trying to claim that the news media lied. This is bullshit. The press — including this story, as written in its original form, properly and accurately informed citizens that Google isn’t building a nationwide portal to evaluate whether or not you have coronavirus and that Verily’s project was only in the testing stages. Ars Technica’s own writeup, linked above, confirms these points. The President denies them. This is so normal as to barely be worth mentioning, except for the fact that we are in the middle of a true international pandemic, and POTUS can’t resist a little branded messaging.

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The reason the press will not be apologizing is that the press was not wrong to inform Americans that, as of Friday, Google had no such program and Verily was launching a trial in the Bay Area. The only thing that has changed on Monday is that Google is launching some new information portals.

Accurate Information in an Emergency Is Essential

I am not here today to re-litigate every statement President Trump has made or the appropriateness of any given comment. I am speaking solely to the pandemic we face today.

When security issues arise — and a global pandemic is a security issue — corporations and governments have an ironclad responsibility to communicate in a neutral, calm, and truthful manner. If this were the first time the Trump Administration had misinformed the American people during the coronavirus crisis, we could chalk it up to chaos and miscommunication. But it isn’t.

At multiple points, the President has claimed we would have a vaccine in a matter of months when the effort is expected to take at least a year. He has claimed that testing is readily available to anyone who wants it. According to The Atlantic, they’ve only been able to confirm about 14,500 Americans had been tested as of Friday. For comparison, South Korea has been capable of testing up to 20,000 people per day.

Trump has told the American people that insurers would pay for testing and treatment for coronavirus when insurers have actually stated they would only pay for testing. Given the size of medical bills in the United States, that’s no small difference. He has told the nation that SARS-CoV-2 cannot live in warm weather and will die off as summer approaches. That could be true, but the WHO disagrees:

From the evidence so far, the COVID-19 virus can be transmitted in ALL AREAS, including areas with hot and humid weather.

He has repeatedly declared that the coronavirus is “under control” in the United States, while test kit orders go unfilled and likely-infected people are refused testing and sent home to self-quarantine instead.

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Epidemiologists have begun emphasizing the need to “flatten the curve” of infection because, with only 2.8 hospital beds per 1,000 people and 65,000 full ventilators across the entire nation, we literally can’t triage the impact of a massive infection wave quickly enough to save everyone.

Slowing down the spread is critical to minimizing the damage. Image by Wikipedia

For three and a half years, liberals and conservatives across America have battled over the meaning of Trump’s language and how his statements should be interpreted. There is, however, no room for ambiguity here. Testing is either happening or it is not. Google is either building a massive testing portal with 1700 engineers or Verily is in the early stages of a test program in a single city with no plans for near-term national deployment. These are not the same thing. They are never going to be the same thing.

It is one thing to make allowances for a person’s style of communication. It is another thing altogether to excuse the dispensation of inaccurate information simply because it comes out of the mouth of the most powerful leader on Earth.

This Is Absolutely Political, Just Not the Way You Think

Having written the above, I realize a certain type of Trump supporter will likely Have Some Things To Say About Me. Allow me to preempt them: Yes, I’m talking about politics — specifically, the question of what the state owes to its citizens.

One of those obligations — one of the most fundamental and important reasons for individuals to form a government in the first place — is for mutual defense and protection. Part of providing mutual defense and protection, in the context of disease or imminent disaster, is to ensure that accurate information can be gathered, processed, and quickly distributed to the citizenry. From weather reports and hurricane forecasting to quarterly job reports, the government produces an enormous amount of data and critical decisions get made on the basis of those reports.

Does the government release reports that favor its own interpretation of the data? Of course they do. Do governments sometimes lie to their own citizens? Of course they do. Does that excuse the unclear, half-baked, and downright false verbiage that has come spewing from the White House regarding Covid-19 to-date? It does not. At a time when the need for accurate, unified communication is the largest, the Trump White House has dropped the ball — followed by Trump completely disclaiming all responsibility for the problem of limited test kit production.

Harry Truman: “The buck stops here.”
Donald Trump: “I don’t take responsibility at all.”

There is no justification for the misinformation barrage that has characterized the White House’s response to the coronavirus to date, but there is a way for the Administration to recover, and even some tentative reasons to hope it will improve its disaster response. It’s called “Start dealing with the problem in an honest way.”

The announcement of a national emergency on Friday and the declaration that an additional $50B in funds would be used for disaster relief are both good steps. The next step should be to pass specific legislation mandating various types of relief for those most affected by the coronavirus. Paid leave for all and mortgage relief would be two excellent steps. Late on Friday, Trump reached an agreement with House Democrats on a disaster relief bill. Fox News even had the minimal good grace to put Trish Reagan, who declared coronavirus was a scam by Democrats to harm President Trump’s re-election, on indefinite hiatus from the network.

But no matter what happens, and no matter how terrible or mild the Covid-19 outbreak in the United States is, it is essential that the White House speak with one voice. The data it dispenses must be accurate and truthful to the greatest standard humans can reasonably achieve. This is no time for spin, regardless of who is doing the spinning. We, the citizens of the United States, deserve to be able to trust the words coming out of our elected leaders’ mouths, regardless of who they are or what party they belong to, and we need to be able to trust them now more than ever.

Could Covid-19 still turn out to have a relatively mild effect on the United States? Absolutely. But the best — and according to epidemiologists the only — way to make that happen is to treat the reality of the pandemic seriously. Wash your hands. Practice social distancing. Don’t panic. Coronavirus is not the Black Death 2.0. It doesn’t have to be, in order to cause tremendous damage.

The combined economic impact of all of the canceled conferences across the world is already well into the billions, in terms of expected economic activity that now will not occur. Airlines are calling this even worse than 9/11, in terms of reduced flight bookings. The question isn’t whether we’re going to see significant economic damage, but how much and for how long.

Every single American deserves accurate, factual, and trustworthy data from the government (even if we don’t always get it), but we especially deserve it during a time of uncertainty and crisis. Thus far, the White House has botched the job. Now that we have a formal declaration of a national emergency under the Stafford Act, hopefully, we will see a more coordinated response and an increased focus on dispensing accurate information.

I reject, completely and disdainfully, the idea that demanding accurate, factual, and honest data from my government represents some kind of liberal plot or sneak attack on Donald Trump. I don’t care if we’re talking about Barack Obama, Zombie Reagan, or an unusually ambitious philodendron. I expect government messaging on the pandemic to focus on saving as many human lives as possible and to communicate both failures and successes whether they paint the President and his party in a positive light. I expect the President to put the value of American lives above his own tendency towards self-aggrandizement and to speak honestly about the condition of the country, the impact of coronavirus, the specific steps the government is taking to address it, and the realistic likelihood that any treatments will emerge in the short term.

I don’t call that being liberal. I call it demanding accountability. Whether you are a Democrat, Republican,  Independent, Green, anarchist, or.. whatever Marianne Williamson is, you deserve accurate information. You deserve it even if you disagree with everything I just wrote. You deserve it if you plan to vote for Trump in November. This isn’t about partisan politics. You — we — deserve accurate messaging and factual data and we haven’t been getting it. I hope Friday was the beginning of a major shift in what has, to date, been an absolutely appalling trend.

On Sunday, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Anthony Fauci, told Americans they should expect to “hunker down significantly more than we as a country are doing.” There were also reports that the United States was trying to buy access to a German company’s in-development Covid-19 vaccine, with the requirement that the medicine is deployed solely in the United States. As a reminder, an effective Covid-19 vaccine is still expected to be 12-18 months away, best-case, and our allies would take an exceptionally dim view to any attempt America might make to hold back such a vaccine to its own advantage.

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