But there’s something very different about life in Britain in the time of the novel coronavirus: There’s no Fox News here. Thank goodness for that.
Yes, we are also dealing with horrific death tolls. And sure, there’s plenty of polarization and anger (remember Brexit?).
But at least there aren’t crowds amassing in Westminster to protest public health interventions that save lives, encouraged by TV personalities who know better than to go there themselves. There isn’t a quack “doctor” who has never had a medical license given national airtime to say the exact opposite of what every serious infectious disease expert and epidemiologist in the country is saying. There’s no local version of Fox News pundit Sean Hannity, who has systematically played down concerns over the virus. There are no right-wing comedians being given a platform to hawk unproven drugs on television. And the prime minister isn’t responding to cable TV news by calling on his supporters to “liberate” Birmingham from the very measures that his administration officially supports.
Why not? Let’s be blunt: because all of that is crazy.
In Britain, there is still vigorous (and deserved) criticism of the government’s response. But divisive disinformation that uses extremist rhetoric isn’t being beamed into millions of households every night.
Instead, every Thursday at 8 p.m., Britons across the country emerge from strict lockdowns (everyone is allowed to leave their home only for essential work, for one daily stint of exercise or to do essential shopping for food and medicine). Families gather on their doorsteps (six feet apart, of course). Children hold up homemade paintings of rainbows, the unifying symbol for the National Health Service. And they cheer, in one national voice, clapping and banging pots and pans in support of delivery drivers, factory workers, grocery store employees and, above all, doctors and nurses.
Meanwhile, in Denver, two nurses clad in scrubs and surgical masks get screamed at by an unhinged protester in a Dodge truck: “Go to China if you want communism. Go to China.” In a battle for who was the most absurd extremist last week, another brave “patriot” in Huntington Beach, Calif., stood in front of a Baskin-Robbins with a homemade sign reading, “Give me liberty or give me death.”
Dangerous clowns exist everywhere. The difference here in Britain, of course, is that such ridiculous points of view aren’t planted and then irresponsibly amplified by high-profile media figures who spread deadly propaganda during times of crisis.
Fox News stalwart Laura Ingraham soared to new heights of self-parody with a tweet in which she wondered whether “those who urged our govt to help liberate the Iraqis, Syrians, Kurds, Afghanis, etc.” would do the same for “Virginia, Minnesota, California”:
How many of those who urged our govt to help liberate the Iraqis, Syrians, Kurds, Afghanis, etc., are as committed now to liberating Virginia, Minnesota, California, etc?— Laura Ingraham (@IngrahamAngle) April 17, 2020
Really? If you take this to its logical conclusion, she’s implying there’s no difference between Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz — a former schoolteacher acting in accordance with public health expert advice on how to keep his citizens safe — and genocidal dictator Saddam Hussein.
This is tragedy masquerading as farce. Fox News firebrands Ingraham, Hannity and Judge Jeanine Pirro are putting lives at risk. TV personalities who are paid millions of dollars a year are encouraging ordinary people to do things that could get them killed. Pirro said, “God bless them” in reference to the protesters. She implied that churches and synagogues should defy orders to not hold services. If she really supports the protests and illegal services, what better way than to attend with her relatives?
There’s already disturbing evidence that some Fox News viewers listened to the reckless playing down of the virus during February and early March and took risks that ended their lives. “He watched Fox, and believed it was under control,” one family member of a deceased man explained. This isn’t the only evidence that Republicans who watch Fox News are more likely to believe the threat from the virus is exaggerated.
The same risks apply to the “liberate” protests. Mark my words: Some of the people bunching together to chant “Give me liberty or give me death” without masks will die. But in the meantime, they’ll also infect innocent people and put doctors and nurses at higher risk of dying, too. So much for rainbows and Thursday night clapping.
The lockdowns are producing severe economic pain. Nobody wants them to continue. But the economic damage is being caused by a public health emergency. Saving the economy and saving lives requires the same strategy. If everything opens up prematurely, as many Fox News personalities suggest, we’ll be back at square one.
When all this is over, I hope Americans will have learned this lesson from Britain: A deadly pandemic is destructive enough. We don’t need the dangerous nonsense spewed by Fox News to make it worse.