Political infection

The coronavirus has killed thousands of people worldwide and is threatening to sabotage the global economy. But Trump and his allies view the coronavirus primarily as a political problem. They are worried that concerns about the virus will cause an economic slowdown that will damage Trump's prospects for reelection. So Trump is eager to downplay the threat to Americans. 

Trump tweeted that the coronavirus is "very much under control," citing the Center for Disease Control (CDC), as the authority. 

But just hours later, the CDC made it clear that the coronavirus is not under control, and urged Americans to prepare for a major outbreak.

“It’s not so much of a question of if this will happen in this country any more but a question of when this will happen,” said Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases.

She said that public health officials have no idea whether spread of the disease to the United States would be mild or severe, but that Americans should be ready for a significant disruption to their daily lives.

“We are asking the American public to prepare for the expectation that this might be bad,” Dr. Messonnier said.

Trump also claimed that a vaccine for the coronavirus was "very close." This statement was untrue and the administration was forced to walk it back. 

In these circumstances, chaos and confusion are dangerous. Americans are receiving conflicting messages from their government at a time when they need accurate information, based on the best available science.  

Trump, however, does not listen to experts. He listens to the right-wing media.

"The coronavirus is an effort to get Trump"

During the State of the Union address a few weeks ago, Trump awarded Rush Limbaugh with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor. On Tuesday, Limbaugh dismissed concerns about the coronavirus, saying it was all a conspiracy to hurt Trump politically. 

Folks, this coronavirus thing, I want to try to put this in perspective for you. It looks like the coronavirus is being weaponized as yet another element to bring down Donald Trump. Now, I want to tell you the truth about the coronavirus. You think I’m wrong about this? You think I’m missing it by saying that’s -- Yeah, I’m dead right on this. The coronavirus is the common cold, folks.

Limbaugh is wrong. The coronavirus has a fatality rate of around 2% — that's more than twice the fatality rate of the typical flu. And there is no vaccine available for the coronavirus. We also don't know how contagious the coronavirus is or how it spreads. 

But Limbaugh is not particularly interested in the science. He's interested in making a political point. 

I believe the way it’s being weaponized is by virtue of the media, and I think that it is an effort to bring down Trump, and one of the ways it’s being used to do this is to scare the investors, to scare people in business. It’s to scare people into not buying Treasury bills at auctions. It’s to scare people into leaving, cashing out of the stock market — and true enough, as the show began today, the stock market — the Dow Jones Industrial Average — was down about 900 points, supposedly because of the latest news about the spread of the coronavirus.

Trump echoed aspects of this message in his tweet. The stock market, Trump suggested, is undervalued because the coronavirus isn't a serious problem. 

Limbaugh went on to assert that the coronavirus was created by the Chinese government. 

Just keep in mind where the coronavirus came from. It came from a country that Bernie Sanders wants to turn the United States into a mirror image of: Communist China. That’s where it came from. It didn’t come from an American lab. It didn’t escape from an American research lab. It hasn’t been spread by Americans. It starts out in a communist country. 

This is a widely debunked conspiracy theory that has been relentlessly promoted by the right-wing media. 

Misinformation lab

There is no evidence that the coronavirus was created by Chinese scientists in a lab, according to experts that have studied it. "There’s absolutely nothing in the genome sequence of this virus that indicates the virus was engineered. The possibility this was a deliberately released bioweapon can be firmly excluded," Richard Ebright, a professor of chemical biology at Rutgers University, told the Washington Post

The conspiracy theory was condemned by a group of prominent public health professionals in a letter published in The Lancet, a prestigious medical journal.

The rapid, open, and transparent sharing of data on this outbreak is now being threatened by rumors and misinformation around its origins. We stand together to strongly condemn conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin. Scientists from multiple countries have published and analyzed genomes of the causative agent, severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), and they overwhelmingly conclude that this coronavirus originated in wildlife as have so many other emerging pathogens.

That hasn't stopped the misinformation from being published in right-wing media outlets and distributed widely on social media. 

Stephen Mosher, an anti-abortion activist with no medical expertise, wrote a column in the New York Post making this false claim. It is a version of a similar piece Mosher wrote for The Epoch Times, a propaganda outlet with ties to Falun Gong, claiming that the coronavirus was part of a plot by the Chinese government to "unleash a deadly pandemic on the West to achieve its 'China Dream' of world domination."

The New York Post piece has been shared over 80,000 times on Facebook and 7,800 times on Twitter. It was promoted by Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR) and Robert Kennedy Jr., among others. 

The Daily Wire, the right-wing site founded by Ben Shapiro, aggregated the New York Post column. It falsely described the New York Post column as "reporting," and published a summary under the headline, "Report Suggests That Details Point To Coronavirus Coming From Chinese Lab." The Daily Wire item was shared another 5,200 times on Facebook and more than 11,000 times on Twitter.

The Trump administration isn't helping. Ken Cucinelli, the Acting Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security, appeared on Tucker Carlson to discuss the coronavirus. Cucinelli, a right-wing attorney with no scientific training, acknowledged that "medical professionals" say "the structure of the virus seems unlikely to have been man-made." But Cucinelli declined to "rule out" any theory. Fox News wrote up the interview under the provocative headline, "Cuccinelli won't rule out startling theory on coronavirus origins."


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