Trump's PR can't stop the virus

Trump's PR can't stop the virus
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Whenever it is safer to for us all to be together, it will take some time to adjust. Despite our eagerness to be done with the pandemic, that will not be an easy transition. In 1933, when FDR warned against succumbing to "fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror," he was talking about a financial calamity. Today an economic collapse is layered on a public health crisis. The coronavirus pandemic has given reasons for fear that shows on more than balance books, though it shows on them as well.

It is not too early to address the fear, but the Trump administration seeks to paper it over. Weeks ago, The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced its intent to award a contract for $250M. The contract was to "defeat despair and inspire hope, sharing best practices for businesses to operate in the new normal and instill confidence to return to work and restart the economy," and create a "coalition of spokespeople" to spread the word. "By harnessing the power of traditional, digital and social media," the document says, "the sports and entertainment industries, public health associations, and other creative partners to deliver important public health and economic information the administration can defeat despair, inspire hope and achieve national recovery."

These are admirable aims, but having stumbled on their approach to the pandemic, is the administration once again seeking a public relations distraction? Such a contract does not help defeat the virus or even protect vulnerable men and women from the illness when 190,000 have died in this country, with its disproportionate effect on people of color. The timing could be just right to capture the media spotlight and positions the Department of Health and Human Services into becoming an agency conducting psychological operations in support of the Trump campaign. Psychological operations are designed to weaken the enemy by influencing the thinking and attitudes of the people supporting it. 


This administration has given ample reasons for suspicion. Recruiting a coalition of spokespeople to defeat despair and inspire hope over COVID frontally attacks the Biden campaign on its core denunciation of Trump. Biden has repeatedly called out the president for his failure in leadership and holds him responsible for avoidable deaths and illness. The president, meanwhile has been maneuvering to shift the attention of voters to law and order. If the Trump campaign is going to shift the spotlight from COVID effectively, then it needs to calm the anxiety and fears over the virus and the illness that it causes.

The tactics to defeat despair and inspire hope are aimed to calm fears over COVID. Calming the anxiety and fear over the illness, and possibly dying, neutralizes and defangs the Biden campaign's offensive that voters are disillusioned and distrust the president over his handling of the pandemic. In this way, the coalition of spokespeople would move COVID out of the sight of the voters. That leaves the Trump campaign to launch its counteroffensive on law and order and shakedown Americans over worries of safety and security. Under the disguise of providing an important public mental health initiative, DHHS is at risk of once again appearing to carry out the political objectives of the Trump campaign. 

We agree that the emotional costs of the pandemic must be addressed, but not before a competent and compassionate federal response to the problem itself, qualities that have been lacking in a presidency itself built on fear.

Jonathan D. Moreno is a professor of medical ethics and health policy at the University of Pennsylvania. His most recent book is "Everybody Wants to Go to Heaven, but Nobody Wants to Die." Follow him on Twitter: @pennprof

Stephen N. Xenakis, a psychiatrist and retired Army brigadier general, serves on the executive board of the Center for Ethics and the Rule of Law at the University of Pennsylvania and is an adjunct professor at the Uniformed Services University of Health Sciences. Follow him on Twitter: @SteveXen