“No One Really Knows”: Viral Denial, Climate Denial, It’s all One Piece

March 2, 2020

Jonathan Friedland in the Guardian:

The coronavirus crisis is a war against a disease, but it’s also the most serious battle yet in the war on truth. That much was clear from the start, as China moved to hush up the first outbreak and gag the doctor who had spotted it. It was a classic case of what we might call Chernobyl syndrome: the tendency of authoritarian systems to react to disaster by rushing to downplay or cover up the problem, focusing more on shifting blame than tackling the threat head on. Viewers of last year’s TV dramatisation of the Chernobyl nuclear accident could recognise the pattern immediately, as the priority of those in charge becomes avoiding embarrassment rather than saving lives.

There was some of that in the Iranian reaction to the virus, as the country’s deputy health minister coughed and sweated his way through a press conference called to reassure citizens, only later for it to be confirmed that he had himself been infected. (There were already suspicions, since Tehran’s official numbers didn’t add up.) And there was a grim logic to the fact that at the heart of the outbreak in South Korea is a religious sect similarly devoid of transparency.

Usually, the democratic world can contrast itself flatteringly with such closed, controlled societies, proud that its approach to calamity is openness and the free flow of information. Indeed, crises like this one can serve as test cases for the competing merits of free systems v authoritarian ones. True, democracies cannot match Beijing’s ability to lock down whole citiesand build an entire hospital in a week. But when it comes to a global pandemic, it’s free speech, full disclosure and cross-border scientific cooperation that ultimately save lives.

So while US medical officials have been at pains to brace Americans for the inevitability of coronavirus – a matter of when, not if – Trump and his outriders have worked hard to minimise the threat. On Thursday, Trump repeatedly referred to the figure of “15” cases in the US, when the actual figure was 60, and promised that that number would go down rather than up: “It’s going to disappear. One day it’s like a miracle, it will disappear.”

Trump’s chief economic adviser, Larry Kudlow, breezily assured the US public that the bug had been contained and that the country was sealed “pretty close to airtight” against the disease, when of course it is not. One of the administration’s most influential propagandists – for whom Trump paused his state of the union address this month so that his wife, Melania, might garland him with America’s highest civilian honour, the Presidential Medal of Freedom – the talk radio host Rush Limbaugh has been telling his vast audience that “the coronavirus is the common cold, folks”, and that it had been “overhyped” and “weaponised … to bring down Donald Trump”.

You could see that when Trump spoke in the White House briefing room, brazenly contradicting the experts by his side. But it’s now become formal policy, with Trump’s insistence that all federal officials – including those with deep scientific expertise – are to say nothing that has not first been authorised by the White House.

Note the fate of Dr Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease. On Thursday he dared say that “we are dealing with a serious virus” with a higher mortality rate than regular flu. That was deemed insufficiently upbeat for the great leader. According to the New York Times, “Dr Fauci has told associates that the White House had instructed him not to say anything else without clearance.”

The new mantra, it seems, is to be one of Trump’s favourite phrases: repeated again on Thursday: “Nobody really knows.” That could be the motto of post-truthists such as Trump, conveying the hope that voters will become confused, concluding that no truth is ever even possible, and that in the fog of information and rumour it’s best simply to trust the man in charge. That’s what Trump wants every American to believe, about coronavirus and everything else for that matter: nobody really knows.

Focus instead on the fact that Pence has been appointed over the head of the health secretary, Alex Azar, whom Trump deemed too “alarmist”. In that same spirit, Trump has gutted the very agencies that the US will now desperately rely on. In 2018, he slashed health spending by $15bn, binning the Obama-era programmes and teams established for the express purpose of leading the US response to a pandemic. Among those cut: the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – now in the frontline against coronavirus – which was forced to reduce by 80% its efforts to prevent global disease outbreak. The consequences are clear enough: only eight of the US’s 100 public-health labs are now even able to test for Covid-19.


The Trump administration recently requested $2.5 billion in emergency funds to prepare the U.S. for a possible widespread outbreak of coronavirus. Critics, though, are pointing out that money might not be necessary if the administration hadn’t spent the past two years largely dismantling government units that were designed to protect against pandemics.

The cuts started in 2018, as the White House focused on eliminating fundingto Obama-era disease security programs. In March of that year, Rear Adm. Timothy Ziemer, whose job it was to lead the U.S. response in the event of a pandemic, abruptly left the administration and his global health security team was disbanded.

That same year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) was forced to slash its efforts to prevent global disease outbreak by 80% as its funding for the program began to run out. The agency, at the time, opted to focus on 10 priority countries and scale back in others, including China.

Jeremy Konyndyk on Twitter:

Recall how, in the run-up to the Iraq war, the White House signaled preferred policy outcome so heavily that it skewed the analysis and advice it received.

Can see similar alignment b/w preferences Trump and his team were signaling, and strategic posture of his crisis managers.

Trump wanted to calm markets, avoid threats to his re-elex, and keep the disease out of the country. 

He and his team made those preferences very clear. And got angry at those who deviated.

That inevitably colored – both overtly and subtly – the strategic emphasis of the crisis task force. 

They operated from presumptions that containment was possible, the risk to the US was low, and transmission was not happening here yet. Repeated those things like a mantra.

And those assumptions set the frame for the testing failures. 

The key question is not “why didn’t CDC’s test kits work?” 

It’s “why were flawed CDC test kits allowed to bottleneck all US testing capacity when alternatives were available?”

Adding to the debacle, the bottlenecks on test kits meant that CDC kept the case definition artificially narrow – tied to China – even as cases were expanding globally (and, we now realize, domestically as well).

The core emphasis of policy was on keeping it out – travel controls, screening, traveler quarantine. And finite testing capacity was targeted at that.

Those assumptions and signals reflected POTUS’ clear preference, and the process’ failure to question it.

And sadly, as a result of those assumptions, they squandered the weeks of delayed spread that the travel controls may have bought us.

Because rather than scale up surveillance and prepare the health system for community spread, all emphasis went into containment.

The core of policy became a self-licking ice cream cone: we’re not seeing community spread yet so we don’t need to aggressively test for it, and anyone who is saying we do is being alarmist. The situation is under control; the risk to the public is low.

And that mentality also means there’s less urgency to solve the testing bottlenecks – because there’s no sign of community spread. 

13 Responses to ““No One Really Knows”: Viral Denial, Climate Denial, It’s all One Piece”

  1. John Kane Says:

    China moved to hush up the first outbreak and gag the doctor who had spotted it.

    Assuming Wiki is approximately accurate read the story of Dr. Li Wenliang.

    He was correct in worrying about the problem but he not a whistle blower.


  2. doldrom Says:

    That’s a lot of political spin. So far I have been impressed by the way public officials across the board (including the WHO) have fumbled the ball and are reacting too late. In Europe, everybody was still saying it was a bad flu, just relax, nothing wrong (and that is what officialdom was trying to radiate), this is routine for us, we are so well prepared, have been for years … right up until the cases hit their own population, and suddenly, break outs, endemic contagion, stronger and stronger warnings and measures, faithfully following the facts instead of leading them, just like the public & amateurs. First everybody thinks it’s Chinese and Communist mishandeling, until it strikes close to home, then suddenly the army is called out to impose quarantines, and things start to get serious, even though we were clearly forewarned. Travel bans after the fact. Fat lot of good that will do.

    • jimbills Says:

      I actually thought “no one really knows” in its original use was a very rare bit of half honesty from him. It’s important to remember he wasn’t talking about climate change when he said that. He was talking about the virus four days ago – and it’s true that no one really knows exactly how bad this specific thing will be now, let alone then.

      His original statement was: “from our shores, you know, it could get worse before it gets better. Could maybe go away. We’ll see what happens. Nobody really knows.”

      Trump surrounds that, though, with full-on BS and abject ignorance, like that the virus has a lower death rate than the flu:

      Or with grossly irresponsible wishful thinking like that it’s going to miraculously disappear.

      This is a case where Trump is uniquely unfit to be the nation’s leader. He mentally cannot handle anything that would reflect poorly on him, and so he is compelled to deny the issue and deflect focus from it. If he continues to use the mantra “no one really knows”, that’s likely to become a very unflattering symbol for historians to consider if the virus does go pandemic (and it really, really looks like it will at this point).

      I saw this a few days ago:

      My thought was – why hasn’t the government ALREADY stockpiled a ton of those things? It’s a non-perishable item. We have long known a pandemic was possible. The government needs to go the CVS to buy them now?

  3. indy222 Says:

    Sorry – I’m suffering from “outrage gland exhaustion”. Call in the doctors.

  4. terrydonte Says:

    If you look at the official and unofficial estimates of infected the virus is not much different than the flu which managed to kill 50,000 people in the USA one year when Obama was president yet nobody was hyper ventilating like they are today. This is mostly hysteria driven by the news. There are at least three possible vaccines already not counting any in China. What needs to be done is light a fire under the bureaucrats whose idea of rush is 10 years in the future for a vaccine.

    • doldrom Says:

      No No No.
      [1] Sars (and Mers) forms the closest homologue, that was 2003, and there is no vaccine yet, just as there is no HIV vaccine. The vaccines that were formulated for Sars made actual infection worse instead of better. WuFlu vaccines are happyTalk at the moment.

      Yes. Flu kills a lot of (usually older/weak) people annually, just as does a heat wave. It would probably be more accurate to say that death rates crest than to talk about “killing”. But the WuFlu has a number of characteristics which are very different:

      [1] 80× as many severe cases requiring hospital care as the flu
      [2] 20-50× as deadly as the flu (in terms of Case Fatality ratio), depending on whether the healthcare system can handle the volume or whether it is swamped
      [3] Much more contagious than the flu. R₀ is above 4.6 according to many reputable epidemiologists (flu is 1.3), though officials keep saying 2.8; but then again, officials have been downplaying this all along, in every country all over again. It’s almost like official reaction is also a syndrome with clearly defined symptoms and phases.
      [4] No herd immunity anywhere, b/c it’s new (immunity dampens the contagion). Data is sparse on reinfection and how effective anti-body immunity is. Some evidence suggests minor spread vectors through airborne virions and the fecal/oral route. Some reputable epidemiologists are predicting that 70% of the global population will eventually be infected.

      There is no data yet on the possibility that Spring will attenuate (sunlight, drier air, less time indoors, etc). Incubation time is up to 27 days and there are a lot of completely asymptomatic carriers. This means that containment efforts face serious challenges. As long as there are restrictive test guidelines and no community-level testing, officials can comfort themselves with their lack of data. Seasonal influenza is a cat1 infection. This is a cat5!

      If you belong to the 80% who show mild or no symptoms, good for you. If you belong to a risk catagory and the hospitals are swamped (or run out of anti-biotics for opportunistic secondary infections or ventilators, etc) you’re on your own and your luck has run out: 60% fatality ratio for those who become critically ill (one step up from severely ill) even with ICU.

  5. redskylite Says:

    Latest info from WHO. .. .

    WHO Director-General’s opening remarks at the media briefing on COVID-19 – 3 March 2020

    ‘This virus is not SARS, it’s not MERS, and it’s not influenza. It is a unique virus with unique characteristics.

    Both COVID-19 and influenza cause respiratory disease and spread the same way, via small droplets of fluid from the nose and mouth of someone who is sick.

    However, there are some important differences between COVID-19 and influenza.

    First, COVID-19 does not transmit as efficiently as influenza, from the data we have so far.

    With influenza, people who are infected but not yet sick are major drivers of transmission, which does not appear to be the case for COVID-19.



Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: