Mar 24, 2020 - Health

Coronavirus inspires divergent messages and misinformation

Illustration of a man with a long Pinocchio nose wearing a surgical mask.
Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Misinformation and mixed messages from leaders are compounding people's natural fear about the pandemic from the new coronavirus and diverting their attention from the steps scientists say are needed to quell the outbreak.

Why it matters: Even the best-case scenario is dire for Americans, and that's based on social distancing and other measures having the chance to take effect.

What's happening: The dichotomy between some of the White House rhetoric and what scientific experts expound is taking its toll on people who need clear communication on how to combat the novel coronavirus.

  • This is compounded by a frenzy on social media of lies that are helping undermine trust in governments and global health organizations.
  • A new trend to watch, says University of Washington's Jevin West, has been the appearance of "people who are not even experts in this field, who are gaining influence" and have become "influencers."
  • Plus there's a known proliferation of disinformation, West tells Axios, often promoted by bots and trolls based abroad. He points to a false study that went viral on how to tell if you have COVID-19 supposedly from Stanford, which quickly debunked it.

The latest: President Trump, who has been losing patience with the social distancing and travel restrictions necessary to contain and mitigate the virus, declared on Monday night that restrictions will be lifted "fairly soon" and the economy could be re-opened despite the pandemic.

  • Trump and other administration officials had been promoting a 15-day plan that was approved by economic adviser Larry Kudlow, as the U.S. economy — already facing multiple catastrophic shocks — could join what looks to be a coming global great recession.
  • But the administration's 15-day plan was tempered by the surgeon general's warning that it wasn't likely going to be long enough.
  • Now Trump is weighing a huge gamble that economic recovery will supersede what public health officials say is needed.
  • Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, expressed frustration during an interview with Science on Sunday about how Trump sometimes conveys information in a manner that "could lead to some misunderstanding about what the facts are."
  • "But I can’t jump in front of the microphone and push [Trump] down," Fauci added.

Between the lines: "This portends a rift between the administration and the public health people. This is not a happy picture," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, tells Axios. The government "totally screwed up" its chance to prepare the nation.

  • "Now they’ve locked themselves and the country into a horrendous trade off.  The principles of public health say we need to have a national lockdown for a few more weeks. The principles of finance say that will lead to a second Great Depression," Moreno says.
  • To be sure, Moreno adds, a depression does bring its own "knock-on" health effects like mental health exacerbation, emotional issues, and malnutrition from poverty.

The bottom line: This pandemic is hard enough for everyday citizens to navigate without expecting them to referee between scientists and politicians.

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