Is coronavirus panic a hoax?

Donald Trump told his base in South Carolina Friday night that  coronavirus was the Democrats’ “new hoax.” He reasons that the virus narrative will bring down the Trump bull market and eliminate the major selling point in his reelection campaign. His son Don Jr. told Brian Kilmeade on “Fox & Friends” that  the Democrats “hope that it comes here, and kills millions of people so they could end Donald Trump’s streak of winning.” The Trumps have never been great fans of science. The next day Trump pulled away from his use of the word “hoax,” acknowledging the seriousness of the health threat “from China.”

American politics has been beset by hoax narratives since the dawn of the republic. They are as American as “Ma’s blueberry pie.” As Kurt Andersen points out in his brilliant book, Fantasyland—How America Went Haywire, for centuries we have conflated truth and fiction; reality and fantasy. 

In the late 17th century, Cotton Mather, a Harvard graduate who later went on to become president of that august institution, preached from the pulpit that the end of the world was at hand. Every year he would edit his sermon to extend the date. Mather was one of the supporters of the Salem witch trials, which relied on “spectral evidence,” evidence based on dreams and visions. Mather and others used that evidence to try to execute numerous offenders said to be possessed of the devil. 

In the 19th and 20th centuries, the nativist secret party called the Know Nothings preached that Catholics, Asians and other immigrants were a lower grade of Americans. Blacks were to be oppressed. The Know Nothings were even able to elect to Congress one of their number, Nathaniel P. Banks of Massachusetts. He became speaker of the House. Lincoln regarded the Know Nothings as part of a pretty rapid “progress in degeneracy.”

In the 19th century, the legendary journalist Horace Greeley, in an early example of “fake news,” bought into the “Great Moon Hoax” that there was life on the Moon. Greeley wrote of the proposition’s “unquestionable plausibility and verisimilitude.” Even today, years after the Apollo 11 landing on the moon surface in 1969, many claim that the whole thing was a hoax, and that the astronauts were never there in the first place.

Then, there was William Frederick “Buffalo Bill” Cody, a soldier in the Union army turned showman. Cody’s alleged exploits in the Wild West as an Indian fighter were depicted in a story, later a novel, written by fiction writer Ned Buntline. Presto, Cody became a legend.

The 19th century was the golden age of American quackery. We had itinerant salesmen peddling medicinal nostrums. John D. Rockefeller Sr. started up-selling snake oil as patent medicine. He went on to crude and founded Standard Oil.

P.T. Barnum is supposed to have said famously, there is a “sucker born every minute.”

But no one is really sure he actually said it. He featured in his circus an allegedly 161 year-old slave woman who purportedly suckled George Washington, an animal purporting to be the Cardiff monster, and an alleged mermaid in whose existence many were prepared to believe. Then he drew the burgeoning crowds out of the tent with a seductive sign reading, “This way to the egress.

On October 30, 1938, the actor Orson Welles, in a radio dramatization of H.G. Wells’ “The War of the Worlds” interrupted the CBS’s programming to “report” that “Martians have invaded New Jersey.” There is disagreement about how many members of the public were convinced that Martians were really here. Radiolab said that 12 million people heard the broadcast, and estimated that one in 12 listeners totally panicked. Slate, however, maintained that most listeners weren’t even tuned to the program, preferring a comedy-variety show on another station.

Conspiracy theorists believe that sightings of “black helicopters” presaged the military takeover of the United States by aliens, the United Nations or even federal agents seeking to enforce the wildlife laws.

Fantasies are fun, but they can also hurt us. Thomas Jefferson sagely said: “You can believe in 20 gods as long as you don’t break my legs or pick my pockets.”

Coronavirus is no hoax. These are early days in the story. And we still do not know the answer to the trenchant question: Will Coronavirus become a deadly pandemic that sweeps around the world? 

Since China first announced the outbreak on December 31, more than 88,000 cases have been recorded, including more than 3,000 deaths. The virus has already made its way to at least 66 other countries and territories, including Malaysia, Egypt, Iran, Canada and the United States, where by latest count 74 cases have been diagnosed. Of seemingly greater concern to Trump, the markets have tanked, travel has slowed and some countries are locked down. The fix has had a greater impact on the world economy than the disease itself.

Washington State just confirmed a death, a man in his 50s with an underlying health condition. There was no evidence of contact with an infected person, and no evidence of relevant travel. A second Washington State death soon followed. So who is spreading the virus, the Democrats? 

Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infection Diseases Anthony Fauci, a leading immunologist, has already said that we have seen “sustained transmission,” not just post travel cases, and that we must be prepared for an eventual outbreak, even though it may never occur. He stresses that this is a new virus, which we have been studying for just a few weeks. We do not know whether it will subsist outside flu season. Vice President Mike Pence, whom Trump has put in charge of the problem, instructed Fauci along with others on the case not to speak publicly any more about coronavirus. As is so disturbingly the case with Trump, sunlight is the enemy, not the “greatest of disinfectants.”

Trump should never have politicized a public health issue with the “alternate reality” of his hoax narrative. He has only made us less prepared to deal with what may become a crisis. The  only thing we can do this side of heaven is remember the words of John Adams, “facts are stubborn things.”

Oh, I forgot, just in case, remember to wash your hands several times a day. Works even for hoaxes. 

James D. Zirin, a retired partner of the Chicago-headquartered law firm of Sidley Austin, is the author of the recently published book, “Plaintiff in Chief — A Portrait of Donald Trump in 3,500 Lawsuits.” He is a former assistant United States attorney for the Southern District of New York. 

Tags Anthony Fauci CBS Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; CDC China Coronavirus Donald Trump Mike Pence Standard Oil Washington state

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