It has taken until the last year of Donald Trump’s presidency for the existential risk this narcissistic authoritarian poses to be fully exposed. There have been other tests: the unconstitutional squeezing of immigration; the brief week or so when war with Iran felt inevitable; the imprisoning of children in cages along the United States’ southern border; not to mention the engagement with foreign governments in seeking personal gain. But it is the arrival of Covid-19, the infectious respiratory virus, that threatens a presidency reliant on a strategy of all narrative and no truth.
Trump has a core support base of people who are most vulnerable to Covid-19. Older people – particularly those who might resist taking the kind of interventionist measures being suggested – are very much at risk. Trump may have to halt his famous rallies in the middle of election season. More alien to him even than that, if containment of the virus is ever going to work he will have to build a good-faith alliance with the press to push out a unified and coherent message.
Recent epidemics such as H1N1, Sars and Mers – none of which reached the spread or numbers of Covid-19 – showed that frequent, accurate press coverage and information is a central part of effective response. When Sars appeared as the first pandemic of the 21st century, Hong Kong was thrown into a state of panic by a 14-year-old school pupil who spread a false rumour that the city was being placed under quarantine. His method was to mimic a local newspaper website, in tactics which are still favoured by disinformation campaigns today.
When Vietnam was struck by a measles outbreak in 2014, citizens became frustrated by the lack of information and started organising and protesting on Facebook. At the beginning of the current coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan, China, whistleblowers were punished and citizen journalists who tried to report from within the city were arrested for allegedly spreading false information. A draconian crackdown that effectively contained the virus might have been avoided with an earlier and clearer picture of what was happening.
So how does a government manage a health crisis when it has persistently persuaded people to distrust the press? America might be about to find out.
From the moment Trump pointed his finger and roared “You’re fake news” at journalists attending his first press conference in January 2017, the president has bludgeoned away at the credibility of mainstream news and dispensed with a necessity for the truth. Now, in an election year, with the appearance of a fast-moving epidemic that can only be contained by the speedy transmission of reliable information, Trump’s tactical warfare on the media could finally catch up with him.
Studies have shown that reliable news and information during an epidemic can help to change behaviour and limit the spread of disease. The importance of an alignment in openness and accuracy between health agencies, governments and the media can be measured in lives saved.
So broken, however, is the relationship of the US presidency to the truth that even when, on Fox News, Trump relayed accurately that the death rate from the disease was likely to be lower than the 3.4% of reported cases thus far, the press jumped on what they perceived as an attempt to improve a dire picture.
In his first Covid-19 press conference last month, Trump rambled around the subject, suggesting the infection was like the flu, that the administration was doing “an incredible job” and that one day the virus “was going to disappear”. A week later, 11 people were dead, a hundred more cases confirmed, more than 2,700 people were quarantined in New York and entire school districts in the Pacific north-west had been closed, at least in part because of the government’s unpreparedness.
The trail of incompetence includes a lack of testing at ports of entry, a bungled quarantine operation for infected cruise passengers, a shortage of testing kits, and an epidemic task force that had been assembled by Barack Obama’s government only to be disbanded and fired by Trump.
From the overly dense and difficult-to-navigate Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website, to the confusing press conferences, the US government’s official media response has been endangeringly poor. By contrast, the World Health Organization’s daily briefings, including its social media presence (it even has a large following on TikTok), provide a useful source of information, as do university research websites and some regional governments.
For the press, coronavirus is its own test. The riveting circus of the Democratic primaries has absorbed the national news in the drama and spectacle of a wide and historically diverse field being whittled down to two elderly white men, Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden, duelling for the privilege of challenging another elderly white man for the presidency. But the heat of the race inevitably cools as shelves empty of goods and travel restrictions throttle both the economy and the population.
The national US press now has a duty to deliver consistent, accurate information, in a fractured media landscape, to many different audiences – and where it matters most, at the local level, on limited resources. What threatens to be an “infodemic” of incorrect or partial information, hoaxes and panic-inducing coverage adds to the burden of responsible reporters in both correcting and quashing the mass of misconceptions.
Epidemiologists traditionally relied on news reporting to help identify and model how cases spread during epidemics, and for the most part this means local news. News organisations such as the Seattle Times dropped their paywall and went into overdrive reporting on the centre of the west coast outbreak; but for other communities where there are fewer or no local reporting organisations, relaying timely and detailed messages will be more challenging.
Coronavirus is not a political issue in itself, but the handling and messaging of the disease very much is.