Remember when coronavirus was a thing? NPR remembers.
President Trump this month will begin hitting the road once again to make his pitch for reelection in the 2020 White House race, despite the deadly coronavirus pandemic, which continues to wreak havoc on the lives and livelihoods of households across the country.
Public experts continue to warn against large gatherings of people, even as the country has begun in the past several weeks to reopen the economy. The coronavirus crisis has already killed more than 100,000 people in the United States — the highest number of fatalities of any country in the world.
Just imagine what a state we’d be in now if there had been, say, people by the thousands marching and chanting slogans all over the world for the past couple of weeks.
Obviously, I don’t think there’s moral equivalence between a march to oppose police brutality and racism and a hate rally where the conspiracy-theorist-in-chief gets to rant about his real and imagined enemies for a few hours.
The virus, on the other hand, sees no distinction between the two. And if the same people who told us to lock down, but changed their minds and said we should march, then say we have to lock down once again, who is going to take them seriously?
Thomas Chatterton Williams, writing in a notorious right-wing, pro-Trump rag called (checks notes) The Guardian, says it’s not just the Trumpsters who have squandered their credibility for political points:
After two and a half months of death, confinement, and unemployment figures dwarfing even the Great Depression, we have now entered the stage of competing urgencies where there are zero perfect options. Police brutality is a different if metaphorical epidemic in an America slouching toward authoritarianism. Catalyzed by the spectacle of Floyd’s reprehensible death, it is clear that the emergency in Minneapolis passes my own and many people’s threshold for justifying the risk of contagion.
But poverty is also a public health crisis. George Floyd wasn’t merely killed for being black – he was also killed for being poor. He died over a counterfeit banknote. Poverty destroys Americans every day by means of confrontations with the law, disease, pollution, violence and despair. Yet even as the coronavirus lockdown threw 40 million Americans out of work – including Floyd himself – many progressives accepted this calamity, sometimes with stunning blitheness, as the necessary cost of guarding against Covid-19.
The new, “correct” narrative about public health – that one kind of crisis has superseded the other – grows shakier as it spans out from Minnesota, across America to as far as London, Amsterdam and Paris – cities that have in recent days seen extraordinary manifestations of public solidarity against both American and local racism, with protesters in the many thousands flooding public spaces.
What are we to make of such whiplash-inducing messaging? Merely pointing out the inconsistency in such a polarized landscape feels like an act of heresy. But “‘Your gatherings are a threat, mine aren’t,’ is fundamentally illogical, no matter who says it or for what reason,” as the author of The Death of Expertise, Tom Nichols, put it. “We’ve been told for months to stay as isolated as humanely possible,” Suzy Khimm, an NBC reporter covering Covid-19, noted, but “some of the same public officials and epidemiologists are [now] saying it’s OK to go to mass gatherings – but only certain ones.”
Public health experts – as well as many mainstream commentators, plenty of whom in the beginning of the pandemic were already incoherent about the importance of face masks and stay-at-home orders – have hemorrhaged credibility and authority. This is not merely a short-term problem; it will constitute a crisis of trust going forward, when it may be all the more urgent to convince skeptical masses to submit to an unproven vaccine or to another round of crushing stay-at-home orders. Will anyone still listen?
Trump, and his fellow populists around the world, didn’t just come out of nowhere. The past few years have been marked by increasing mistrust of almost every kind of authority. If we can’t trust our public health officials, either, we’re in even bigger trouble than we know.
Ironically, people who support the BLM marches and oppose Trump’s rallies do have a credible argument on their side: the protests are outside while Trump events are held indoors, where the coronavirus may be more easily transmitted. That, and not some fanciful idea about the virus skipping over people who have good intentions, could actually work.