Not an abstract concern

As usual, truth is the first victim. Jonathan Freedland at the Guardian:

The coronavirus crisis is a war against a disease, but it’s also the most serious battle yet in the war on truth. That much was clear from the start, as China moved to hush up the first outbreak and gag the doctor who had spotted it. It was a classic case of what we might call Chernobyl syndrome: the tendency of authoritarian systems to react to disaster by rushing to downplay or cover up the problem, focusing more on shifting blame than tackling the threat head on.

But this time it’s not just the openly, explicitly authoritarian states that are lying and hiding.

… this time, the familiar authoritarian v democratic contrast has become muddled. That’s because the current leader of the world’s most powerful democracy, the US, has the same instincts as the authoritarian rulers he so admires, and those instincts have coloured his response to coronavirus. The result is that what for many must have seemed an abstract concern – Donald Trump’s assault on facts, experts and science – is now a matter of life and death.

I don’t think many people thought of Trump’s assault on facts, experts and science as an “abstract concern.” It warps everything he does, including getting elected.

So while US medical officials have been at pains to brace Americans for the inevitability of coronavirus – a matter of when, not if – Trump and his outriders have worked hard to minimise the threat. On Thursday, Trump repeatedly referred to the figure of “15” cases in the US, when the actual figure was 60, and promised that that number would go down rather than up: “It’s going to disappear. One day it’s like a miracle, it will disappear.”

Lying is so natural to him that he may not even know he’s doing it. He says what is useful to him, always, and truth doesn’t come into it. Very young children are like that, because human brains take a long time to develop, but most people are not like that once they mature.

One of the administration’s most influential propagandists – for whom Trump paused his state of the union address this month so that his wife, Melania, might garland him with America’s highest civilian honour, the Presidential Medal of Freedom – the talk radio host Rush Limbaugh has been telling his vast audience that “the coronavirus is the common cold, folks”, and that it had been “overhyped” and “weaponised … to bring down Donald Trump”.

It’s hard to know what to say about that. Limbaugh isn’t Trump, Limbaugh knows he’s lying. Why would he tell dangerous lies about a growing epidemic to flatter Donald Trump? I don’t know. I can’t fathom it.

[Trump’s] first instinct is that of the Manhattan hustler-hotelier loudly assuring guests that the strong smell of burning coming from the ground floor is merely the chef trying out a new barbecue rather than a sign that the building is on fire. Crucial to that effort is talking loudly over the fire marshals, or even gagging them altogether.

You could see that when Trump spoke in the White House briefing room, brazenly contradicting the experts by his side. But it’s now become formal policy, with Trump’s insistence that all federal officials – including those with deep scientific expertise – are to say nothing that has not first been authorised by the White House.

Note the fate of Dr Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease. On Thursday he dared say that “we are dealing with a serious virus” with a higher mortality rate than regular flu. That was deemed insufficiently upbeat for the great leader. According to the New York Times, “Dr Fauci has told associates that the White House had instructed him not to say anything else without clearance.”

Well, a few thousand or million lives are a small price to pay for Donald Trump’s continued grip on power.

Trump has gutted the very agencies that the US will now desperately rely on. In 2018, he slashed health spending by $15bn, binning the Obama-era programmes and teams established for the express purpose of leading the US response to a pandemic. Among those cut: the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – now in the frontline against coronavirus – which was forced to reduce by 80% its efforts to prevent global disease outbreak. The consequences are clear enough: only eight of the US’s 100 public-health labs are now even able to test for Covid-19.

But we saved money, so Amazon can pay less in taxes.

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