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On Sunday, Turning Point USA’s Charlie Kirk appeared on Fox News and offered an idea to the channel’s 3.5 million-member audience: Reopen states with lower infection rates while leaving more heavily infected areas in quarantine.
“So what I’d like to see is an even heavier focus and more national unity about assisting those areas, and also relieving some of the quarantine and allowing the American entrepreneur to be liberated,” Kirk said.
There’s clearly an appetite for this kind of thinking, some Americans appear to be ignoring social distancing warnings. A Staten Island couple held a wedding on Sunday, shrugging off a New York state ban on “nonessential’’ public gatherings.
Countries have closed their borders and gone into lockdown, the global economy has ground to a halt, and internet traffic has surged in the wake of the outbreak of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.
But it’s been just 12 days since the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic, barely a month since the disease caused its first death on American soil. Most governments are using May 1 as a tentative date when the world can start back up again. The reality of another month inside, at least, is beginning to sink in for people.
Online, a certain desperation is setting in. At the increasingly less-fringe corners of the American right wing, people have begun asking an unsettling question: “What if mitigation doesn’t work?” And there are three threads that are slowly converging, like a meme, to congeal into a dangerous answer — reopen the economy, no matter who might die as a result.
First, some right-wing media, business leaders, tech entrepreneurs, and prominent conspiracists are becoming bolder about wanting to “move on” and go back to work. Second, conspiracy theories are circulating that suggest certain people become infected for a preordained reason — like the idea they could be part of a global pedophile ring. And third, governments around the world, including the United States, are experimenting with ways to track people who are infected using surveillance technology.
The pandemic’s most immediate impact is that it has effectively closed down the physical world, forcing the majority of the earth’s population to rely almost wholly on the digital one. And at the center of this new realm is Twitter, where the outbreak is tracked and dissected second by second. A new class of coronavirus influencers has risen up, incentivized by Twitter’s need for constant content and its lack of fact-checking, peer review, or nuance. While there's plenty of verified information available, it's often shifting and subject to update and can at times create the substrate of confusion and anxiety on which rumors thrive. So when bogus coronavirus theories bubble up, they are embraced by some as fact — shady Bill Gates laboratories, Chinese bioweapons, ibuprofen making the virus worse, pointing a hair dryer into your mouth to cure yourself.
Which means, right now, with enough retweets even the silliest of these ideas can become someone's vision of reality.
One of the first business leaders to publicly advocate for this was MicroStrategy cofounder Michael J. Saylor last Monday. Saylor emailed a 3,000-word note to employees, with the subject line “My Thoughts,” which was viewed by the Guardian, railed against social distancing and instead suggested that it would make more sense to “quarantine the 40 million elderly retired, immune compromised people who no longer need to work or get educated.”
“It is soul-stealing and debilitating to embrace the notion of social distancing & economic hibernation,” Saylor wrote. “In the absolutely worse case, the overall life expectancy worldwide would click down by a few weeks.”
Saylor’s call echoed across right-wing media.
“Americans need to know the date when this will end,” Fox News host Laura Ingraham tweeted last week. “The uncertainty for businesses, parents and kids is just not sustainable.”
Tom Fitton, the head of a conservative organization called Judicial Watch, also publicly called on the Trump administration last week to “reopen" America.
Over the weekend, Fox News hosts latched on to a Medium post. This time Laura Ingraham, Bret Baier, and Brit Hume all shared a viral and now-deleted Medium post titled “Evidence over hysteria—COVID-19,” by a Silicon Valley technologist Aaron Ginn. The post has since been republished on ZeroHedge. The anchors praised the piece and imploring their followers to read it. Hume called it “smart analysis.”
On Sunday, Fox News host Steve Hilton dedicated an entire segment to “flattening the curve, not the economy.” Hilton raged against the economic shutdown in the wake of COVID-19. “Dr. Fauci [director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases] says he's fine with overreacting,” Hilton said. “Well, that's easy for him to say. He'll still have a job at the end of this, whatever happens.”
On Monday, John Cardillo, a reporter for the conservative publisher Newsmax, tweeted a false claim that the coronavirus outbreak had “peaked.”
“Anecdotally anyway, there’s a rumbling among doctors that this has peaked,” Cardillo wrote. “Democrats need America to have European social problems to push European socialism here. But we won’t, this won't do to us what it did to them, and that drives Dems and the MSM insane.”
And the right-wing news site Washington Examiner on Monday published an editorial arguing the same thing, titled “We Need a Plan to Reopen America.”
Vincent Racaniello, a professor of microbiology and immunology at Columbia University and host of the podcast This Week in Virology, told BuzzFeed News that there isn’t even enough testing being done to know who is actually infected, which would make any plan to keep infection hot spots locked down completely infeasible.
“If you just lock down who have clinical symptoms,” he said, “it's not going to do a damn thing.”
Racaniello said he understands the desire to not completely obliterate the economy, but cautioned against ending mitigation this early into the process. A recent study from Imperial College London estimated mitigation efforts would need to continue for at least 18 months to prevent millions of deaths. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo is already talking about a possible nine months of mitigation ahead of us. Relaxed social distancing in Hong Kong is believed to have caused a second spike in cases this week.
“For god’s sake, do people really not have any patience in this country?” he said. “It was finite in China. It will be finite here.”
It’s worth noting, though, that this sort of survival-of-the-fittest response is similar to how some members of the pro-Trump QAnon movement are reacting to the outbreak. Q followers, who believe that Trump is waging a secret war against the deep state, have been largely divided about how COVID-19 fits into their sprawling, nonsensical conspiracy theory. At first, they theorized the virus was a bioweapon created by Bill Gates. Then, following some remarks from Rush Limbaugh, a sizable contingent of them began to suggest that the virus was actually a deep state hoax meant to discredit Trump.
But in the past week, a new consensus has emerged. QAnon followers have created “the list,” a document that tracks celebrities who have reportedly tested positive for COVID-19. They theorize that famous actors like Idris Elba and Tom Hanks testing positive for the coronavirus is proof that the virus specifically targets members of the supposed global criminal conspiracy against Trump.
QAnon efforts to track those who are infected in some ways mirror the paranoia felt across the country right now about who gets sick and why. You can see it in Nextdoor posts theorizing that the coronavirus has spread because people aren’t vegan or aren’t sanitizing their hands with tea tree oil. There’s a desire to make sense of this chaotic pandemic, and social media helps to satisfy it.
This dovetails with early government efforts to track the spread of the infection. Countries like Israel, Italy, and Austria are working with telecommunications networks to use anonymized location data to track people in infection hot spots and monitor whether citizens are breaking stay-in-place orders. Hong Kong has deployed electronic bracelets for those who test positive for the virus. India is experimenting with stamping people who have been infected with ink that doesn’t wash off. Last week, US companies like Facebook or Google began discussing how to track infection hot spots using anonymized location data.
There is growing despondency that we don’t have an immediate solution to the global pandemic, and many on Twitter, both from Silicon Valley or the American right wing, bizarrely think they’ve come up with solutions worthy of discussion.
“This is a hard tweet to write: The best plan to protect vulnerable elderly is to gather all above 70+ years, except for those with essential skills like doctors and military and some elected officials, and create safe zones in military bases to protect them from Covid-19,” tech investor Shervin Pishevar tweeted, then deleted, Monday.
According to a Bloomberg report Monday, all of this has made its way to the president, who has reportedly begun privately discussing ending social distancing and reopening the nation.
“WE CANNOT LET THE CURE BE WORSE THAN THE PROBLEM ITSELF,” Trump tweeted on Sunday. “AT THE END OF THE 15 DAY PERIOD, WE WILL MAKE A DECISION AS TO WHICH WAY WE WANT TO GO!”
The 15-day period Trump’s referring to started a week ago, which means we may have just one week before we make a decision that could prove deadly.
The journalists at BuzzFeed News are proud to bring you trustworthy and relevant reporting about the coronavirus. To help keep this news free, become a member and sign up for our newsletter Outbreak Today.
This article was updated to remove imprecise information about a Twitter thread that has been deleted.