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Lies in a Time of Pandemic

When contagion starts, lies kill.
March 23, 2020
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1. How to Manage an Outbreak

Last week, a reader sent me a passage from the end of John Barry’s book The Great Influenza, which is generally regarded as the definitive history of the 1918 pandemic. Barry spent years of his life studying this one moment in history and it’s fair to say that he understands it as well, or better, than anyone. And he came away with some very specific lessons for dealing with outbreaks.

Here’s one of them:

Of all the lessons from 1918, the clearest is that truth matters. A specialty among public relations consultants has evolved in recent decades called “risk communication.” I don’t much care for the term. It implies managing the truth. You don’t manage the truth. You tell the truth. . . .Those in authority must retain the public trust. The way to do that is to distort nothing, to put the best face on nothing, to try to manipulate no one.

I want to put that in contrast with the constant lies Donald Trump has foisted on the public since the very start of this crisis:

I mention this not to fixate on Trump’s deficiencies as a leader, but to highlight that he is actively making the situation worse.

In a time of pandemic, truth is a tool to fight infection. Lies contribute to the spread.

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2. Hillary?

Over the weekend, Max Boot wrote a column arguing that one of the reasons Hillary Clinton was a preferable candidate to Donald Trump in 2016 is that she would have handled the COVID-19 pandemic better.

Let’s leave aside whether or not Boot is correct and look at this question as a hypothetical.

My Trump-loving friends have often asked me, “If the election was tied and your vote was the decisive factor, who would you have voted for?” And that’s a fair enough hypothetical.

So here’s a hypothetical for Trump supporters:

If it could be proven to your satisfaction that Hillary Clinton would have done a better job handling the COVID-19 crisis, then in retrospect, would you have preferred her to Trump?

Let’s grant that this is a pure hypothetical. There’s no way to know. This is an intellectual exercise. Yadda yadda yadda.

But still: If you voted for Trump in 2016 and were convinced today that Clinton would have handled this pandemic—with all of the ramifications it will have, globally—better than Trump, then would you still think that, on balance, the benefits of the Trump administration outweighed the costs?

I would hope not. But then, I’ve often been surprised over the last four years.