• 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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    Posted in 2020, Economy

    Puerto Rico: Disaster Management Works, Just Not Always on TV

    October 8, 2017 // 8 Comments »


    It seems there’s a template for Trump versus the Hurricanes: he won’t do enough, it isn’t being done fast enough, everything will collapse (ready Katrina headlines) and then the draining, heroic reality of the response takes hold. With more stormy weather ahead for this administration, it’s time for a better understanding of how disaster management works.

    A disaster destroys in hours infrastructure that took decades to build. Millions of people plunge from first world to third world status in real time. The things that separate a Texas suburb from a Nairobi slum – clean water, sewers, power, hospitals, roads – disappear.

    Meanwhile, the media tends to focus on drama and controversy. They often overplay the story via anecdotal reporting (“Here’s Mrs. Hernandez without electricity, she says [pause] with no help in sight”) and underplay the work being done, especially at the beginning of the response where progress is hard to see. First responders on laptops methodically solving supply problems are not very mediagenic, after all.

    At the moment of disaster, the Big Bang, needs are at 100% while the response is at a zero point. The response starts in deficit. It always looks grim, especially to participants and outside observers unfamiliar with the process that is starting. They want what is a marathon to play out like a sprint.

    In dealing with a major disaster, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the military follow a standard playbook. I know, I worked with both on and off for two decades while with the State Department. I trained with them, and was on-the-ground during the Kobe, Japan earthquake (6,000 dead) and Asian Tsunami (280,000 dead.) I worked the Washington DC-end of many other disasters. I read after-action reporting from 20-30 other such events. That’s a (much) younger me pictured above in the headgear you have to wear on military helicopters.

    The critical initial step is a needs assessment, from which everything else flows. Responders need time to visit sites, confer with local officials, and determine what is needed and where the needs are greatest. It is a slow process in a chaotic environment, delayed by weather, roads, and communications. From the outside it can look like nothing is being done; Mrs. Hernandez still doesn’t have electricity even as helicopters are flying around, apparently ignoring her!

    The needs assessment gets the right help to the right places in order of priority. As an example, I was part of a liaison team with the American Navy at Phuket, Thailand following the Asian Tsunami. Without any local input, the first helicopters brought in huge fresh water bladders. It turned out most of the water was unneeded; the city had warehouses full of the bottled version. The Americans weren’t helping!

    It took a day for us to track down, but the most urgent need the Navy could address was a buildup of medical waste at local hospitals. Waste pre-disaster was trucked out daily; the tsunami wrecked the roads, and so boxes of soiled bandages and infected sharps accumulated. When American resources turned to help dispose of that, hospitals were able to run at peak, and lives were saved. The water bladders lay abandoned in parking lots around town.

    Other decisions that can flow from a needs assessment might include restoring power to one school to shelter fifty families before fixing fifty individual homes. It can mean blocking people from calling internationally so limited cell capacity can be directed to local 911 calls. The Federal Emergency Management Agency, for example, set as a priority reopening dialysis centers across Puerto Rico. Somebody else didn’t get helped first to make that possible.

    At the early-to-intermediate stages of a disaster response people in less affected areas will wait in long lines for supplies. It looks bad on TV, but can actually mean the system is working, as help was directed to a higher priority. It takes good reporting to know if that’s the case. Instead, “success” is often too quickly defined as “make everything back to the way it was before the storm.”

    The military plays a key role in disaster response. The problem is Americans are conditioned to believe there are unlimited resources of all types, instantly movable to where they are needed.

    Military units tend to have war fighting as their primary job, and most are somewhere doing that, or training to do that. Shifting to a disaster mission can happen quickly but not instantly. Lots of people showing up with can-do attitude is vitally important. But just as important is gathering the right skills – electrical engineers, teams that desalinate sea water for drinking, and sewage crews (3.4 million people’s waste festering with fecal-borne disease is a dreaded secondary killer in this disaster.) The process can always be started sooner than it was, but it can’t be done effectively until needs are known.

    Much mockery has been directed at Trump’s statement about Puerto Rico being an island, surrounded by “big water.” His phrasing was callous, but the fact Puerto Rico is an island is significant. Unlike Texas or Florida, no one can self-evacuate, by car or even on foot. Same for incoming aid. Everything must travel by plane, or, more likely, ship.

    Planes and helicopters can do great things, but they lean toward small scale. Puerto Ricans now need some two million gallons of fresh water a day. A gallon weighs about eight pounds, so that’s 16 million pounds of water. A C-130 cargo plane can carry some 42,000 pounds. So that’s 380 flights a day, every day, just for water. There are bigger aircraft, but the bottom line is always the same: you simply have to move the epic quantities required to respond to an epic island disaster by ship to a port, then inland by truck.

    That last step, moving supplies from a port (or airport) to those who need them is known as the “last mile” problem. It haunts every disaster response.

    Success with the last mile depends on local infrastructure. If it was neglected before the disaster, it will never be better (and often worse) than that during the disaster response. Next comes the need for trucks, fuel for those trucks, drivers, security, and personnel and equipment to offload the ships and pack the trucks. If you’re missing one link in the chain the aid does not move.

    From the outside it’s easy to see these as excuses for why more hasn’t been done for desperate people. They are instead practical realities men and women are wrestling with right now on the ground. It can be a complex, methodical process, addressing a single problem (get water to that village) as a cascading string of nested problems. While the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s remark that Puerto Rico relief is the “most logistically challenging event” the United States has ever faced seems exaggerated, it does underscore the size of the job at hand.

    So don’t be distracted by the Tweets. While no response is ever fast and robust enough, this is not Katrina. That was the result of a system breaking down, one that has been fixed and is operating in Puerto Rico now. Even as the hard work goes on, people will remain outraged not everyone has everything at once. Lack of drinking water remains a critical issue. And there will be tragedies to report; responses are always imperfect, and Hurricane Maria was a tremendous storm. The loss of life in Puerto Rico is at 16, though will climb as rescuers reach more remote areas. For Harvey, the death toll was at least 70, Irma 72. Katrina saw 1,833 fatalities with over 700 people still missing.

    But a tipping point will take place, where adequate services are restored and people will start to see the help they need. Problems will reduce from regions without power to villages without power to an isolated home without power.

    None of this is intended to be a Trump apology. I have seen disaster management up close myself, and dirtied my own hands doing it. Standard actions and pacing that are lost in the politics surrounding events in Puerto Rico are there. Everything else right now seems to be just Twitter wars.




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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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    Posted in 2020, Economy