• Fearing Fear Itself, Now That’s Something to Be Afraid Of

    March 14, 2020 // 11 Comments »



     

    This is not about downplaying something serious. It is about preventing mistakes that will make things worse.

    Nothing is more viral than fear. Fear  — fight or flight — is a terrible way to make decisions that call for time, science, and rational thinking. Want to screw up a public health crisis? Let fear drive.
     

    Democrats, conditioned by years of faux-narratives to believe everything Trump does is “an existential threat to America,” are about twice as likely as Republicans to say the coronavirus poses an imminent danger. Our political party should not affect how we respond to an epidemic, but it does.

    “Our hyper-polarization is so strong that we don’t even assess a potential health crisis in the same way. And so it impedes our ability to address it,” said Jennifer McCoy, a Georgia State political science professor. “I am not scared of Covid-19,” a Canadian infectious disease expert wrote, “I am scared about the loss of reason and wave of fear that has induced the masses of society into a spellbinding spiral of panic.” “COVID-19 is infecting our minds, not our lungs,” says Psychology Today. Trump Derangement Syndrome, and whatever its opposite is, might actually help kill us this time.
     

    Fear makes for poor public health decisions. Remember the 1980’s?

    In 1981 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported five cases of a strange pneumonia. The disease didn’t even have a name until the next year, and wasn’t isolated in the lab until 1984. By the end of the decade 27,408 people died from AIDS. It would go on to kill over 500,000 Americans. Yet while a horrible disease and a miserable way to die, in retrospect “the problem with AIDS was really two epidemics — the real health epidemic and the epidemic of the mind.” The New York Times concluded “in the 1980’s, fear spread faster than AIDS.” America paid a price in lives.

    The fear was countable. In the mid-80’s 60 percent of Americans wanted HIV+ people to carry a card noting their status; one in three said employers should fire employees who had AIDS. Some 21 percent of Americans said people with AIDS should be isolated from the rest of society in leper colonies. Even a professional medical journal wrote dramatically “A specter is haunting our streets — the specter of AIDS, a remorseless and incurable disease whose nature, transmission and effects still contain elements of mystery.”
     

    Those mysteries are always the most dangerous elements in shaping public health policy via fear, and with AIDS, centered on exaggerating the problem.

    Given that most early cases surfaced inside communities already viewed as modern day Sodoms, many sought to exaggerate the crisis from a quasi-religious point of view; God was smiting the gays. And some of those homosexuals were coming for your kids! Tragically, too many felt the more who died of AIDS the better, and played up the deaths as “Judgement.” The rest of us, God-fearing, were safe. Homophobia manifested as fear crushed human compassion. It’s almost like hoping the current economy goes into a deep recession, destroying the savings of millions of Americans, so Trump’s chances of reelection fall. Or one politician hoping the virus infects those at MAGA rallies.

    The Reagan administration, with its political debt to newly-empowered evangelical voters, was indifferent at best toward using Federal funds to study or prevent AIDS. Congress agreed; in 1987 it banned the use of federal funds for AIDS prevention and education campaigns that “promoted or encouraged, directly or indirectly, homosexual activities.” Years were lost as the virus spread, and who knows how many died because of the delay in funding.

    The rest of us were not innocent. In the mid-to-late 1980s “AIDS hysteria” was a familiar term in the media and public life, and popular comedians made crude jokes that today would never be sanctioned. A study found “health care trainees and professionals have demonstrated that their level of empathy and caring for HIV/AIDS is negatively affected by the knowledge that the person being treated is homosexual.” A 1985 Time magazine story, “The New Untouchables,” focused on an incident in New York where parents refused to send their children to a school after one student was identified as HIV+. “What about somebody sneezing in the classroom? What about the water fountain? What about kids who get in a fight with a bloody nose? They don’t know!” said one frightened parent.

    Gay activists also sought to drive public opinion through fear. You Mr. Whitebread can catch it too! The fear of a “heterosexual breakout” was employed to coax a Middle American audience toward political awareness. The gay community also sought to exaggerate the extent of the crisis as spur to action, primarily more government funding. In 1988, after New York revised its estimates of HIV+ citizens significantly downward, members of AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (Act Up) were arrested at a sit-in at the Health Department. Hecklers trailed the Health Commissioner demanding he resign. His home was picketed and spray-painted. There were death threats against him. Yet statistical studies some 30 years later showed even his lower numbers from the 1980s overestimated the extent of the epidemic by some 50 percent. The Commissioner had been right to tamp down the threat.

    More radical methods also sought to fight the religious narrative. Act Up disrupted Sunday Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, where demonstrators desecrated the communion wafers and chained themselves to pews while 4,500 protested outside. A demonstration outside Boston’s Holy Cross Cathedral during an ordination ceremony had Act Up members, some in drag, tossing condoms at newly ordained priests.

    Activists justify their use of fear as the only way to have focused attention on the disease. But that ignores the tragic results of their actions. While funding did increase, much of the government’s early AIDS-prevention budget was used to raise awareness among hetero college students, women, and others who faced relatively low risk. Money was diverted away from the gay communities that needed it the most.

    Even today, AIDS and other fear-mongered diseases soak up a disproportionate share of research funds. Diseases that account for 84 percent of deaths in the U.S. receive less than half of NIH funding. Cancer and HIV/AIDS in particular receive a disproportionately large amount, while chronic diseases like diabetes and obesity receive less funding relative to the costs they impose on society. The squeaky wheel gets the grease irrespective of good public health policy, and the language of those squeaks is fear.
     

    The worry is always the unknown, and on Day One of any epidemic involving a new virus nearly everything is unknown, and near nothing known. Mistakes get made as protocols and procedures are created (in reality, field tested) on the fly. Japan, with an excellent universal health care system and a non-partisan public health bureaucracy, miserably mishandled a cruise ship quarantine, turning the boat into a virus incubator. But while mistakes will be made, protocols will improve. People once believed they should not shake hands with a gay person, or share a public toilet, for fear of catching the disease. As fear forms around the unknown, people, both well-meaning and not, fill the space as science races to catch up. Charlatans promote fake cures. Black marketers run up prices. There will be political hay to be made whether you are driving a pro- or anti- agenda. Things will be unknown until they are known, and no one knows when that is — another unknown.

    “AIDS is grim enough without exaggeration,” cited one prescient editorial of the day. “Why has the truth disappeared so far from view? Perhaps because the chief interpreters of the data want to reflect their own messages. Public health experts see a unique chance to reduce all sexually transmitted diseases. Medical researchers demand $1 billion in new Federal spending against AIDS, hoping to refurbish their laboratories. Government epidemiologists, seeking to protect homosexuals and drug addicts, fear the Reagan Administration may acquire the notion that these are the only people at risk. Moralists see a heaven-sent chance to preach fire, brimstone and restricted sex. Homosexuals have no desire to carry the stigma of AIDS alone.”

    While fear as a manipulative tool, especially as a political manipulative tool, is nothing new, the coronavirus panic appears at a new place in America. Social media lets too many people Joker-like pour fuel on fires, with no interest in putting them out. MSM, which once at least spoke of their job as information gathering, now pursues an unambiguous political agenda when it is not just peddling raw anxiety as a profit center. We are ever more diverse and ever more separated, life divided into subreddits. We live exhausted, on knife’s edge, lip deep in cynicism, decline, illegitimacy, and distrust. We never find time to exhale. It isn’t safe anymore for us to have common fears.

    The bottom line? Fear is a powerful motivator. But fear is a miserable alternative to science and rational thinking, and a terrible tool to employ when fighting an epidemic. Only when science replaced fear did AIDS subside to where today the disease is a manageable element of public health.
     

    So wash your hands. Use sanitizer. Ask questions. The virus is dangerous. But keep fear in check. Ask yourself why Dr. Oz is part of NBC News’ “Coronavirus Crisis Team.” As you encounter information that focuses on worst-case scenarios, seems to exaggerate or downplay unknowns, uses terms like surge, crash, skyrocket, tumble, leaves out conflicting information to create a unipolar stance, is more White House gossip than science, anything that starts with Report: ask yourself if the primary purpose seems to be peddling fear — to sell you a product, to get you to click (you’re the product being sold), to influence your vote (same.) If so, socially isolate yourself from that source.

    And stop reading political journalists to learn about a health issue. I write this from New York, under a declared state of emergency. Yet for all the headlines announcing this new state, one has to dig deep to find the primary motivation for the declaration was simply “a more expedited purchasing and testing protocol.” It’s more about a better bureaucracy now than something with sirens and flashing lights now.

    The numbers will go up until they start going down (it is a virus after all; new cases are declining in China and South Korea) but keep the numbers in perspective. There is nothing investors fear more than uncertainty. Right now, that is all there is and volatility in the markets will continue until uncertainty, and then fear, back off. Lack of testing can artificially hide infected cases but deaths are harder to hide. Before you blame someone or something, figure out how to blame away the virus in China, Italy, Iran, and elsewhere where they don’t have Trump, and do have universal healthcare, sick leave or whatever other partisan talking point is being pushed.Panic is easy, a measured response hard.

    Don’t let fear take from you what the virus is unlikely ever to even threaten.

     

    BONUS!

    Fear as a political tool is common in the modern ear. Never mind fact-checking, the most powerful political ads are built around emotion, with no facts to check. Two of the most well-known are the 1964 “Daisy” TV commercial, which with barely a word said drove voters terrified of nuclear weapons to vote for LBJ over Barry Goldwater.

    In 2008 Hillary Clinton employed a nearly-identical ad against Barack Obama, the famous “3am Phone Call.”


     
     

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

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    Propaganda and the Coronavirus

    March 9, 2020 // 30 Comments »


     
    “Um, is it Colonel Vindman in the Russian Tea room with the coronavirus?”

    “Very funny. Now everyone settle down. Welcome back to Propaganda and the Death of Media 101 in case you’re in the wrong class, and its, um, March 15, 2024. Now we were discussing the role of propaganda and the media in trying to influence the re-election of Donald Trump by tying his leadership to a global pandemic. Propaganda in these cases seeks to diminish people’s view of a leader’s competence. The ultimate goal is to get you to vote him out.

     

    For those of you in the back holding up those tattered Bernie signs, God rest his soul, let’s start with the question of whether the media engaged in propaganda at all. Contrast the sense of panic in 2020 whipped into place with how things played out in 2009 under Obama. The first cases of the swine flu, H1N1, appeared in April 2009. By the time Obama finally declared a national emergency that fall, the CDC reported 50 million Americans, one in six people, had been infected and 10,000 Americans had died. In the early months of the disease, Obama had no Secretary of Health and Human Services or appointees in any of the Department’s 19 key posts. No Commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, no Surgeon General, no CDC Director. The gap at CDC was particularly important, as in the early days of the crisis only they could test for the virus; states weren’t enabled until later. DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano, not a medical doctor, lead the federal effort.

    The first real H1N1 cases appeared in Mexico. The border was not sealed, Mexicans were not forbidden to enter the U.S. Though CDC recommended against travel there, the primary danger cited was kidnapping for ransom. Yet 66 percent of Americans, supported by the media, thought the president was protecting them. Some 4,000 Americans were dead before a vaccine was first distributed.

    The emergency proclamation it took Obama seven months to declare was issued by Trump within 30 days of the current virus being found abroad. He announced a temporary suspension of entry into the U.S. of foreign nationals who pose a risk for the transmission of the coronavirus (CNN criticized “the travel ban could stigmatize countries and ethnicities.”) And yes, Trump encouraged everyone to wash their hands.

    Anybody here remember the media freaking out over Obama’s initial response, which was hand washing was pretty much what was needed? Anyone who did the reading find evidence of national panic throughout the crisis? No. Why did the media cover essentially the identical story so very differently for two presidents? The question is the answer.

     

    Look at the timing in 2020; the crisis came when the media decided it was time for a crisis. Though the virus dominated headlines in Asia since mid-January, American media first relegated the story to the business news. In late February the main “Trump” story was Russiagate II, the revelation (which quickly fell apart) the Russians were meddling again in the election. The Democratic debate at the end of February invoked Putin many times. The virus barely came up.

    Then the NYT sent up the Bat Signal for the new crisis on February 26, the day after the Democratic debate, with an article titled “Let’s Call It Trumpvirus” (subtlety is not required for propaganda.) An effort was born overnight to blame Trump personally for the virus, and essentially declare his chances of reelection done. The critical change was not anything to do with the virus itself, simply with the decision by the media to elevate the story from the business section to the front page. Even a week after that, with American sanity in a tailspin, only two Americans had died, and about half the known U.S. cases arrived with the evacuees from Japan. Of course the numbers quickly went up (that’s why we use the expression “going viral” for your Instagram blowups, kids) but imagine what a graph of actual cases would look like versus a graph measuring panic.

     

    You’ll see in your textbooks another example which shows how propaganda works, the reporting of initial problems with the CDC coronavirus test kits. One typical headline claimed “The U.S. Badly Bungled Coronavirus Testing.” But the problems were old news almost as the stories were written; 15,000 testing kits were released within 48 hours of that story with plans to send out an additional 50,000. Each kit can test 700-800 patient samples.

    The follow-on stories screamed about Trump funding cuts to the CDC, most of which were actually only proposed. Then the stories were merged — Trump cut CDC funding and thus not enough kits were available. Not only were both pieces largely untrue individually (few cuts were made, kits were available), the merging of the two was grossly false. Instead of examining these things for lessons learned in the midst of an unfolding crisis, the media treated them as new bits to mock Trump with, like late night comedians trolling the news for material for their monologue.

    No room was left for people making errors in novel decisions under time pressure, just the jump to “Trump incompetence” instead of doing the real work of looking into the questions. The problem with the testing kits was a highly technical one involving chemical reagents and factory contamination. CDC is a massive institution. Who if anyone there made any “bungled” decisions? Would they have likely made a better decision with different funding? If so, then Congress can act and drop some money on that office. If not, move on, there is work to do. It is how the media acts when they seek to fix the blame, not the problem.

     

    The propaganda surrounding how the government initially handled the coronavirus was also obvious in the false “who is in charge” question the media asked. The vice president was given the role heading up the task force. This is the kind of thing VPs do, bring gravitas, make sure a whole of government approach has the bureaucratic firepower it needs, and so on. The propaganda instead hyper-focused on Mike Pence’s “disbelief in science,” itself more of a chanted mantra than anything established by fact. For “proof” the stories settled on Pence supposedly creating an HIV epidemic while governor of Indiana. The reality is much different. Pence took office opposed to needle exchanges. When dirty needles shared among opioid users in rural Scott County, Indiana were linked to 71 cases of HIV transmission, Pence responded to the new information (sad to see people die, but 71 deaths is all it was and many would have died from their drugs soon enough) by changing his policy and authorizing needle exchange in Scott and four other counties. The reality seems much closer to seeing an ideological stance changed by science than the opposite.


    Pence said at the time “I’m going to put the lives of the people of Indiana first. It’s a commitment to law and order, but it’s a commitment to compassion.”

    Meanwhile, the media largely ignored those Pence chose for the taskforce. One was Dr. Deborah Birx, a career medical professional nominated by Obama in 2014 as the U.S. global AIDS coordinator. She also served as head of the global HIV/AIDS division at CDC, was an immunology researcher at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, and an Army colonel. You want to inspire confidence you profile Dr. Brix; you want to sow discord you misrepresent Mike Pence’s decisions years ago.

     

    There’s so many more examples, but our class time is short. Here are a few.

     

    You can report on the elimination of Obama’s pandemic czar but leave out that the position was just a coordination job on the National Security Council with no real power. It sounds scary (one outlet called it sabotage) to see that job go, but in fact the coordination duties within NSC were reassigned to others.

    You can focus on every coronavirus case as proof efforts are failing while ignoring providing perspective by reminding 12,000 people died, with over 13 million infected, from the regular influenza (the one with the vaccine) between October 2019 and February 2020.

    You can focus on time will take to develop a full-on vaccine and ignore the treatments already now in human testing trials.

    You can purposefully confuse accelerating public health measures already underway with America’s lack of universal individual health care. We have plenty of the former, not enough of the latter. But the pandemic is not a solid argument for the latter as it is a problem of public health policy. That’s why even countries with good, free care systems are suffering the virus. Medicare for All would not have changed anything in 2020.

    You can cover the virus as you did Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. Everyone was gonna die there until they didn’t. You can follow the now-standard Trump propaganda template: say he won’t do enough, then say what he does isn’t being done fast enough, predict everything will collapse (with Katrina references) and then move on to a new crisis as the reality of the response takes hold.

    You can report on panic selling on Wall Street, or explain how global supply chain problems are not caused by the virus, but by traders’ reaction to the unknowns of the virus. China’s factories closed because the government enforced social isolation, not because the workers were dead. Soon enough Apple products flowed back into our greedy hands, and the stock market found its way back to a new normal.

    You can report store closings, but not their reopenings. By March 1 Starbucks had reopened 85 percent of its stores in China. Apple, over 50 percent. You can emphasize how many Chinese factories were closed in February, or report on their reopenings in March.

    You can misrepresent the use of words like hoax to make the president appear weak.

    You can ignore the drop off in cases inside China. Only a few days after the first cases appeared in the U.S., new ones inside China dropped to 200.

    You can avoid reporting how viruses follow a bell curve. Case counts first rise quickly, the virus claims the “easy” deaths among the elderly, and then environmental factors (viruses must live inside a host; they have limited life outside on surfaces`, typically less and less as temperatures climb. This is why you can’t catch HIV from a toilet seat) and public health measures kick in. Treatment emerges and the virus fades. You can explain to calm people where they are in what looks like a 10-12 week cycle to or you can ignore it to stoke fear of the unknown.

    The bell curve template is clearly illustrated by a look-back to how HIV/AIDS went from a massive public health crisis in America to a manageable problem. As the virus became known, panic took hold. False reporting outran reality. But the bell curve took over; the virus’ transmission became well understood, better testing protocols developed, excellent preventive medicines became available, and treatment regimes now exist which ensure long lives in remission. Knowns displace unknowns. None of this is to minimize the suffering enroute to the current state, but to show there is an established path even for a virus far more deadly than corona.

    Class concluded.

    “Hey professor, is all this gonna be on the test?”

    “No, but it may influence an election. And don’t forget to wash your hands before lunch, something is going around.”
      

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

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