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The Virus Doesn’t Care About Your Narrative

As the US prepares for major public health action against coronavirus, it's time for pandemic deniers to level with themselves
First Day Of Quarantine Due To Coronavirus Emergency In Milan

Good afternoon. Lots of information this morning, in my in-box, very little of it shareable, because I’m being told off the record. The message, though, is the same one that I’ve been banging on about for a while in this space: Prepare. I’ve been told by a medical source I trust that authorities in at least one major East Coast city is preparing to announce a lockdown any day now. I would not be surprised if there were more cities planning to do this. The point is, we are all running out of time to get supplies for a quarantine or isolation situation. If you haven’t done it yet, go now, this afternoon or evening. Do not put it off another day. Without warning, you may not be able to get out of your place.

Rush Limbaugh today told his listeners not to worry about coronavirus:

But I’m telling you, folks, I have — there’s so many red flags about things happening out there. This coronavirus, they’re just — all of this panic is just not warranted. This, I’m telling you, when I tell you — when I’ve told you that this virus is the common cold. When I said that, it was based on the number of cases. It’s also based on the kind of virus this is. Why do you think this is “COVID-19”? This is the 19th coronavirus. They’re not uncommon. Coronaviruses are respiratory cold and flu viruses. There is nothing about this, except where it came from, and the itinerant media panic that — you can’t blame people reacting the way they’re reacting, if they pay any, even scant attention to the media.

If you read just two or three media headlines a day — pick one, pick two, pick three at random — you’re going to think that if you leave your home you’ve got a good chance of dying — and you don’t. But I can’t — there’s no way we here can stop a panic. There’s no way we can talk sense into a panic. I wouldn’t even try. But I’m telling you, just — to me, this is just a gigantic series of question marks and red flags, all this stuff that is — it’s just the timing of it, the objective — the gleeful, gleeful attitudes in the media about this, the gleeful attitudes that Democrat leaders have about this.

I’ll tell you what’s really more scary than anything, is how the American people — some Americans, I don’t know how many it is, seem to be okay with being told they can’t do this, and they can’t go there and you’ve got to stay here, and we’re gonna quarantine you there, and we’re gonna wrap you up over there, we’re gonna put you in this cocoon here, and you can’t leave and you — “Okay, okay, fine with me!” No, not okay.


Thank God for Dr. Anthony Fauci, the immunologist who heads the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases, and who is a member of the president’s coronavirus task force. The Washington Post reports that Dr. Fauci keeps telling the truth, despite the president’s lies and misdirection:

Midway through a hearing Wednesday on Capitol Hill, a House Republican asked Anthony Fauci, a member of the president’s coronavirus task force, if he was offended by the idea that he could be prevented from speaking openly about the coronavirus by the Trump administration.

“With all due respect,” Fauci said, “I served six presidents and have never done anything other than tell the exact scientific evidence and made policy recommendations based on the science and the evidence.”

The rest of his testimony reinforced that Fauci isn’t exactly toeing anybody’s line. Over and over again, he differed with President Trump’s talking points that play down the threat posed by the novel coronavirus, and he even differed with decisions Trump has made.

Fauci didn’t come out and say “The president is wrong,” but he repeatedly offered a very different emphasis. In one particular instance, he roundly criticized a comparison Trump has trotted out repeatedly.

While Trump has throughout the coronavirus outbreak sought to minimize it by comparing it to the seasonal flu, Fauci noted the novel coronavirus is significantly more lethal.

“I mean, people always say, well, the flu does this, the flu does that,” Fauci said. “The flu has a mortality of 0.1 percent. This has a mortality rate of 10 times that. That’s the reason I want to emphasize we have to stay ahead of the game in preventing this.”

Fauci also told the Congressional panel:

When pressed by lawmakers for an estimate of eventual fatalities in the U.S., Fauci said it will be “totally dependent upon how we respond to it.”

“I can’t give you a number,” he said. “I can’t give you a realistic number until we put into the factor of how we respond. If we’re complacent and don’t do really aggressive containment and mitigation, the number could go way up and be involved in many, many millions.”

The lesson here: How we react today will determine the difference between life and death for a lot of people. 

We cannot afford to believe the anti-hype. McKay Coppins in The Atlantic writes about how Trump and his circles have been living in an epistemic bubble. Excerpts:

From the moment the coronavirus reached the United States, President Donald Trump has seemed determined to construct an alternate reality around the outbreak. In the information universe he has formed, COVID-19 is no worse than the seasonal flu, criticism of his response to it is a “hoax,” and media coverage of the virus is part of a political conspiracy to destroy his presidency.

As with so much of the president’s messaging, this narrative began with tossed-off tweets and impromptu public statements. But in recent days, as U.S. health officials have raised growing concerns about the outbreak, Trump’s efforts to play down the pandemic have been amplified by the same multi-platform propaganda apparatus he’s relying on for reelection in November. From the White House communications office to the MAGA meme warriors of Instagram, from the primetime partisans on Fox News to the Trump campaign’s Facebook feed, the overarching message has been the same: Pay no attention to the fake-news fear-mongering about the coronavirus. It’s all political hype. Things are going great.

Fact-checkers and scientists have scrambled to correct the misinformation coming out of the White House. (No, the virus has not been “contained” in America; no, testing is not available to anybody who wants it; no, people shouldn’t go to work if they’re sick.) But Trump’s message seems to have resonated with his base: A Quinnipiac poll released this week found that just 35 percent of Republicans are concerned about the virus, compared to 68 percent of Democrats.

Coppins examines in some detail claims that have been made by media voices in the Trumposphere, minimizing it all. Then:

To the president and his allies, it doesn’t really matter that all these narrative threads don’t perfectly cohere. Muddying the waters is the name of the game, and it’s a strategy that’s carried Trump through numerous political battles over the years.

But sowing strategic doubt about the facts of a global pandemic is fundamentally different than doing it with, say, an impeachment hearing. The dangers are more tangible and immediate to voters, regardless of whether they support Trump. The stakes are higher. And in a crass, political sense, the long-term effectiveness of the effort is limited. Hundreds of new coronavirus cases are being confirmed every day in the U.S. Public events are being canceled, schools are shutting down, containment zones are being implemented by governors. As daily life is disrupted for more and more Americans, Trump’s alternate reality is bound to implode.

Read it all. 

I was thinking today that there’s a bizarre intersection between the Social Justice Warriors and the angry Trumper pandemic denialists: a shared belief in the power of words to control reality.

Giuseppe Scalas, this blog’s commenter from Milan, points out that in February, the left-wing Italian media was criticizing concern about the virus as potentially racist. An Italian magazine, surveying the situation and the nation’s reaction to it, mentioned that when officials of the conservative League party in the north began calling for quarantines:

The accusations of discrimination and the warning of psychosis immediately arose from the representatives of the [left-wing] majority, from the press and from the  influencers, from the mayors and from the governors of the left. And even a well-known virologist like Roberto Burioni, certainly not a “sovereignist”, indeed until yesterday an idol of the “competent” left, took on the “fascist League” for proposing quarantines.

On February 23, which seems like a generation ago, given what Italy has been through this past week, a columnist in La Stampa condemned the politically correct Italian establishment for acting as if anti-Chinese bigotry was more important than public health. On February 4, the Italian prime minister suggested that northern governors were racist for saying that Italian children returning from China should not be allowed back in school.

We have also seen in the US media a fair amount of anxiety that racism is the real enemy in the coronavirus crisis. Remember the World Health Organization telling people to watch how they talked about the virus?

Reading a number of this blog’s commenters criticizing me for speaking ill of the president’s handling of the crisis, and accusing me of being alarmist, I raised the question — of the strange commonality between the social-justice left and the Trumpy right — with academic James Lindsay, a liberal who sharply criticizes Critical Theory and SJWs. He pointed me to a thread he wrote just last night. It begins like this:

Claiming that the reporting on coronavirus by the media is mostly a political thing or one trying to turn a profit off the confusion is, ultimately, a postmodern philosophy. We’re staring at a genuine crisis of reality banging up against a postmodernist society. 
I predict a fair number of people who pay attention to me because they trust me as an expert on postmodernist thought and behavior are about to turn on me and tell me I don’t know what I’m talking about. 
Critical Social Justice is the fusion of postmodern social theory to critical social theory in order to work for social justice. There are other types of postmodernism than just that one, and our response to coronavirus, as a culture, is one of them. So’s the current presidency. 
Postmodernity is the time we live in, although I’d argue we’re getting into a ripe or late postmodernity as the information age has overtaken the thing (and put it on steroids, in a way). I’d call the current era the “Narrativist Era.” Hopefully we get back on track soon.


POTUS will address the nation tonight about the coronavirus pandemic. Personally, I don’t know what he could possibly say to reassure people at this point. The most important thing he could do, I figure, is communicate to his own followers that this is real, and that they have to stop it with the denial, and take precautions now.

In the meantime, you might want to take a look at this great Atlantic piece, “What To Do When You Start Coughing?” — about what to do if you get coronavirus — and this excellent, straightforward advice from someone named Tomas Pueyo.

Finally, I’ll leave you with a laugh. Which Richard Dreyfuss am I? Richard Dreyfuss, the urgently concerned scientist from Jaws?

Or crackpot obsessive Richard Dreyfuss from Close Encounters of the Third Kind?

Kind of a trick question, that; Close Encounters Richard Dreyfuss was proved right in the end. Still, you know what I mean.



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