The World Health Organization is still declining to call the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic, but the number of infections and deaths continue to climb as the disease spreads. Public health authorities are split about whether containing or mitigating the virus is the best option — but both depend on whether President Donald Trump and his most conspiracy-addled followers can be convinced to go along with it.
At a press conference on Wednesday night, Trump praised his administration’s decision to restrict travel of people from countries where infections have been diagnosed, claimed House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was trying to create a panic for political purposes, and announced that Vice President Mike Pence would lead the official coronavirus response. “Because of all we've done, the risk to the American people remains very low,” Trump said. “The level that we've had in our country is very low and those people are getting very better.”
Trump at the press conference said he agreed with claims that Rush Limbaugh (upon whom he bestowed the Presidential Medal of Freedom at the State of the Union speech) made during his radio show this week, that the deep state had created the coronavirus as a political weapon to “to bring down Trump.”
When a reporter asked Wednesday night if he was minimizing the deadly potential of the outbreak, Trump laughed and joked that it was no different than the flu. "You don't have to necessarily grab any handrail if you don't have to,” he said.
It’s true that the number of cases in the United States is still low, with 14 cases diagnosed. This is in addition to 39 cases repatriated from high-risk settings — a current total of 53 cases. Still, preparations are being made for things to worsen.
There are currently 81,000 cases worldwide, 2,700 deaths, the majority in China. But with outbreaks in Iran, Italy, and South Korea, the CDC’s director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, Nancy Messonnier, suggested on Friday it might be only a matter of weeks before US officials start talking about school and business closings. As authorities get ready, the president, some administration officials, and allies are either baselessly bragging about how prepared we are to contain the disease or spreading conspiracy theories about it — and there’s a ready audience for those fevered narratives.
On Monday, while in India on his first state visit, Trump tweeted, “the Coronavirus is very much under control in the USA. We are in contact with everyone and all relevant countries.” Two days later, the president doubled down, railing against the media for spreading hysteria.
“Low Ratings Fake News MSDNC [sic] (Comcast) & @CNN are doing everything possible to make the Caronavirus [sic] look as bad as possible, including panicking markets, if possible,” he wrote.
Echoing the message, hyperpartisan news sites, conspiracy theorists, and scammers have sown panic. In the last two weeks, a narrative has solidified among his base: The virus is a deep state plot, possibly created by the Chinese government, to hurt Trump’s reelection chances.
Infowars ran a video claiming the Department of Homeland Security was buying up emergency food provisions; the site's sidebar advertised food rations on its online store. Jordan Sather, a YouTuber aligned with the pro-Trump QAnon conspiracy theory, has told followers that coronavirus is a “new fad disease,” the release of which was “planned.” Sather has also promoted the idea that QAnon followers can protect themselves from COVID-19, the illness caused by the new coronavirus, by drinking chlorine dioxide — otherwise known as bleach. Limbaugh and other pro-Trump media sites have also attacked Messonnier, the sister of Rod Rosenstein — a longtime Trump punching bag and former deputy attorney general.
Meanwhile, on Tuesday, White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow claimed the US had an “airtight containment” of the virus. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, during an interview last month with Fox Business, said the coronavirus’s toll on mainland China could boost US employment. Trump trade adviser Peter Navarro claimed that vaccine development will be on "Trump time" and said to expect a faster release to the public. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told BuzzFeed News that a vaccine will only be safe and available for limited distribution to doctors and the most vulnerable patients, those who are elderly or have a compromised immune system, within two years. Republican Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton, while speaking on Fox News last week, claimed the virus could be a lab-made bioweapon, a hoax popular among QAnon followers.
The only part of the pro-Trump ecosystem that has been quiet about the outbreak has been Trump’s 2020 team. Neither Trump’s campaign manager, Brad Parscale, nor the Trump War Room Twitter account have tweeted about the coronavirus. BuzzFeed News has reached out to the campaign for comment.
Brandon J. Brown, an epidemiologist at the University of California, Riverside, told BuzzFeed News there are many examples of the real-world effect of spreading medical misinformation during an outbreak, including the measles outbreak in Disneyland, which was due to anti-vaxxers, and the polio vaccination campaign in Pakistan, where misinformation was spread that claimed the vaccine would harm children.
“Anytime you have lots of people congregated in one location, there is a higher risk of transmission,” Brown said. “So, large gatherings such as presidential rallies with hundreds or thousands of people without too much personal space always can exacerbate the spread of any infection, such as flu or COVID-19.”
In addition, the surge of pro-Trump digital chaos shows exactly how unprepared American tech platforms are for an outbreak, regardless of the safeguards they’ve scrambled to put in place.
“Large gatherings such as presidential rallies with hundreds or thousands of people without too much personal space always can exacerbate the spread of any infection”
Last month, Facebook said it would be removing “content with false claims or conspiracy theories that have been flagged by leading global health organizations and local health authorities that could cause harm to people who believe them.” And the platform told Business Insider this week that it would ban ads that "create a sense of urgency" around the virus or promise to cure it.
Other platforms have also put up safety rails. Twitter is prompting users who search for the coronavirus to visit official channels like the CDC for more information. Searching “coronavirus” on YouTube returns a CDC warning, a live blog about the outbreak from a trusted news source, and hundreds of videos from verified channels. And Amazon has removed listings for products that made false claims about the virus and cracked down on price gouging on face masks.
But Facebook and Twitter are still full of hoaxes and rumors about COVID-19.
Travis View, a QAnon researcher and cohost of the QAnon Anonymous podcast, told BuzzFeed News he believes many pro-Trump conspiracy theorists believe they’re safe from the outbreak: “Many QAnon followers feel that they're safe from serious disasters, including global pandemics, because ‘patriots are in control.’ This stems from their belief that serious disasters are engineered by the evil ‘cabal,’ rather than being natural and unpredictable.”
“It’s not so much of a question of if [an outbreak in the US] will happen anymore, but rather more of a question of exactly when this will happen,” Messonnier said at a briefing Wednesday. As a consequence, it could be a battle between ideology and nature. And when that happens, as was demonstrated in South Korea recently, nature wins.
More than 450 followers of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, a religious organization described by the South China Morning Post as a “doomsday cult,” contracted the coronavirus. On Monday, the head of the Infection Preventive Medicine Department in the city of Daegu tested positive for the virus and subsequently identified himself as a member of the church.
A church representative told BuzzFeed News that the "SCJ does not refer to a 'doomsday' within its doctrine nor does the church believe that there will be a physical destruction of the world."
At least 681 of the 833 infections confirmed in South Korea have been in Daegu, the majority of them linked to the Shincheonji Church. The outbreak within the Shincheonji community started on Feb. 7, when a 61-year-old woman known as “Patient No. 31” checked into a Daegu hospital following a traffic accident and complained of a sore throat. She left the hospital twice to attend church services, exposing thousands of others to the virus in the process. According to expert on new religions Massimo Introvigne, members of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus believe 88-year-old founder Lee Man-hee to be "the pastor and teacher announced by the prophecies of the New Testament, [serving] as the 'advocate' for humankind, and [ushering] in the Kingdom of God."
In the US, similar claims could be found in QAnon circles.
On Tuesday, @Inevitable_ET went viral with a tweet in which they claimed to have found a post from Q from two years ago that proved that Q knew about the coronavirus years before — and that if everyone trusted Trump, they would be fine.
“We have assurance of safety and no justification to panic,” another user responded.
This story has been updated to include comment from a Shincheonji church spokesperson and to more clearly explain the church's beliefs.