The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The origins of covid-19 and the shadow of the Trump era

The Wuhan Institute of Virology is seen behind a fence during the visit by the World Health Organization team tasked with investigating the origins of the coronavirus, in Wuhan, China, on Feb. 3. (Thomas Peter/Reuters)
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We may never know for sure if the coronavirus pandemic that paralyzed the planet started with natural spread from animal to human, or whether it somehow escaped from a research lab in China.

What has become clear in recent weeks, however, is that most experts and media were flat wrong to dismiss the lab theory out of hand. And this says a lot about the fallout from the Trump era and how it endangers us still.

I’m no one’s idea of an epidemiologist, but I never found it terribly persuasive that the virus infected its first human by way of a meat market in Wuhan, just a short distance from a lab that studies rare bat diseases.

That’s because one of the first things I learned as a city desk reporter decades ago, covering all manner of tragedy, was a healthy skepticism for coincidence. Show me a rare virus that appears near a lab that just happens to study rare viruses, and I have a hard time believing the two aren’t connected.

(The logical counterargument here, of course, is that you’re most likely to put a lab for bat viruses in the place where bat viruses are most likely to occur. So, even if the virus spread naturally in a meat market a few miles from the lab, maybe it’s not really so much of a coincidence after all.)

Full coverage of the coronavirus pandemic

Either way, from the outset, the question certainly seemed like a valid one to ask, and a couple of my Post Opinions colleagues — Josh Rogin and David Ignatius — did some early, excellent reporting that cast doubt on Chinese claims of natural transmission.

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Yet pretty much the entire public health establishment and the intellectual left treated the human-error scenario as a kind of kooky and sinister conspiracy theory — right up until this week, when President Biden ordered the intelligence community to look harder at it. Why?

The answer is simple: because Donald Trump insisted it was true. And then his lemming-like followers in Congress, such as Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), kept at it, looking to deflect blame from their president’s pathetically insufficient response to the crisis.

Trump’s vile repetition of phrases such as “China virus” and “Kung flu,” his constant intimation that Asian scientists had purposely set out to kill us (something no one seriously believes even now), fit nicely into the nativist narrative of his presidency.

When all you have is a hammer, everything is a nail — and xenophobia was the only tool swinging on Trump’s belt.

And for that reason alone, those who disdained Trump’s politics immediately rejected the possibility of his being right, even by accident. They withdrew into an ideological corner that was just as reflexive and fact-resistant as the administration they hated. If Trump peddled a theory, then it couldn’t be true.

This dynamic still defines our response to the pandemic. In liberal bastions such as Maryland’s Montgomery County, where I live, our leaders have been among the last in the country to restore schools and downtowns back to some kind of normalcy. This has nothing to do with some proprietary science and everything to do with the fact that Trump and Republicans started pushing for reopening almost immediately after the crisis hit.

By the twisted logic of anti-Trumpism, the only virtuous position is the one that continues to demonstrate the wrongness of the previous administration — no matter how much time has passed or how many children and small business are hurt by it.

This is what liars do, whether it’s your president or someone you’ve dated for six months. They cause you to reject everything they say, just because they said it. They rob you of your ability to reason or entertain alternative points of view, because to accept any premise they put forth is to risk being played.

This is what ignorant leadership does. It breeds ignorance all around. It creates an opposition that doesn’t really want to know the truth if there’s any chance that the truth might validate, even partially, the wrong worldview.

It’s a condition we need to guard against, though. Because you’ll never discredit political ignorance by presenting its more virtuous mirror image. You’ll discredit it only with actual enlightenment, no matter how inconvenient or unwanted the facts may turn out to be.

The emerging facts here suggest that it’s entirely possible Trump was right — that the virus was not a naturally occurring, unavoidable phenomenon, but rather the unfathomable cost of mendacious statism and human error, a reminder that the dangers of globalization are myriad.

And if that ends up being the reality, then let it be exposed, as it should have been from the start — no matter whose theory it was, or how recklessly it was advanced.

The liar only wins when the rest of us become indifferent to the truth.

Read more:

Marc A. Thiessen: The media’s dereliction of duty on the lab leak theory

The Post’s View: Who were the first coronavirus cases? China should help solve the mystery.

Dana Milbank: McConnell focuses ‘100 percent’ on blocking Biden — and zero percent on America

Christine Emba: Why conservatives really fear critical race theory

Ravi Kopparapu and Jacob Haqq-Misra: We’re asking the wrong questions about UFOs

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