COVID-19, also known as the novel coronavirus, has propelled the nation into a state of panic. When the outbreak first occurred, the narrative perpetuated by the media assumed apocalyptic levels. From food and toilet-paper shortages caused by people raiding stores for supplies to banning international and domestic travel, the fear-narrative of coronavirus swept over the nation.
The most recent data on coronavirus cases in the United States estimates more than 1,600,000 cases with more than 96,000 deaths to date. The World Health Organization has declared the virus an “infodemic,” defined as “an over-abundance of information — some accurate and some not — that makes it hard for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when they need it.”
How do you inoculate an infodemic? With wisdom, composure and an avid discernment of information. Alas, it’s difficult to discern accurate information when both the media and politicians have used the widespread confusion and misinformation to propel both fear and political agendas.
COVID-19 has already caused enough uncertainty among Americans, including disrupting day-to-day routines such as work, school and living situations. Yet many media outlets continue to contribute to this uncertainty by spreading worry around national issues from testing-kit availability to a potential national recession.
One doesn’t have to look hard to find articles about how coronavirus is negatively affecting the stock market, housing industry, sporting events or even dating life. On March 10, The Atlantic published an ominous-sounding article, “Cancel Everything,” that advocates for immediate social distancing as the only way to stop the coronavirus. Business Insider analysts predicted “a global recession is now almost inevitable,” while National Geographic wrote a piece headlined “U.S. has only a fraction of the medical supplies it needs to combat the coronavirus.”
Like a check, our nation’s politicians have seemed to cash in on this fear and uncertainty. COVID-19 has been manipulated as a political instrument to garner campaign support and question the authority of the current administration.
For example, presidential candidates and political authorities in Washington are using this virus as another means to criticize President Donald Trump and to cast doubt on his ability as a leader. Democratic front-runner Joe Biden said in a recent conference call, “In times of crisis, the American people deserve a president who tells them the truth and takes responsibility. Unfortunately, President Trump has not been that president.” Vermont Sen. and former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders was also quick to criticize the president, calling his response to the virus “inadequate, misleading and dangerous.” And recently House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer released a joint statement: “President Trump continues to manufacture needless chaos within his administration and it is hampering the government’s response to the coronavirus outbreak…we are demanding that the administration prioritize the health and safety of American workers and their families over corporate interests.”
Inciting fear to instill lack of confidence in the administration may not be quite a “hoax,” as President Trump famously suggested at a rally in South Carolina, but the global coronavirus pandemic is certainly not partisan and should not be politicized. If the media and politicians don’t stop capitalizing on the disease and politicizing it, the long-term impact of the virus could be more than a high body count. After the COVID-19 crisis subsides, how will the American people respond to the government’s future handling of disease? Despite the resilience of the current administration to “flatten the curve” and protect its people, if there is no trust in the administration’s ability to protect, then the very operations of our democracy will be at risk.
Disease itself is a threat to the health and well-being of society, but how are we to respond when our own media and policymakers are perpetuating the fear narrative themselves? It would be wise to heed the advice of the well-spoken ancient Roman orator Cicero who once said, “Prudence is the knowledge of things to be sought, and those to be shunned.”
In the midst of the COVID-19 infodemic, we should be prudent in seeking accurate information from credible sources and shunning that which is misleading and clearly being used as an instrument for politics or an instrument for fear.