Recently, I heard myself say something rarely thought, much less expressed, as I was talking to a friend on the phone: “You know, from now on, I think everything we say and do has to be prefaced by the question: Is it helpful?”

This is an echo of the physician’s creed: “Above all, do no harm.” But it isn’t typically the first thought of most columnists, including this one. Oh, don’t get me wrong, we want to save the world with small gestures of biting wit and well-slung sarcasm. But, generally speaking, writing a column isn’t far afield from H.L. Mencken’s observation that “every normal man must be tempted, at times, to spit upon his hands, hoist the black flag, and begin slitting throats.”

Pandemics necessarily change one’s tune. The normal man or woman today just wants to survive. Me, too.

An honest answer to my question, of course, would end many a critic’s career. But some criticism is valuable and necessary, if based in fact and lucid observation. Which brings me to a short detour to address an unintentional mistake I made in a recent column, citing President Trump’s calling the novel coronavirus a “hoax.” I wasn’t aware that this wasn’t so until several readers wrote to inform me. With apologies to the president, Trump said that Democrats were using the pandemic as a hoax to take him down.

Let the record reflect: The president never said the pandemic was a hoax. He did suggest that the narrative about his mishandling of the pandemic was a hoax. I regret the error. But allow me to post an asterisk, as well: Trump has told so many untruths, called so many challenges “hoaxes” and tried to discredit so many people who displayed what he views as disloyalty by disagreeing with him, that it’s easy to understand how the incorrect hoax attribution gained traction.

This shouldn’t be construed as justification but merely a larger context in which to appraise the president. Criticism is not, in every case, a function of bias, as his supporters often charge, but is sometimes a necessary balance to Trump’s shifting definitions of reality.

While I’m in a generous mood, it may not be entirely true that the president ignored early warnings and the advice of his science advisers concerning the virus. To be sure, Trump can be maddening in his elocutions, such as that the virus will just disappear “like a miracle” — pronounced with a wandlike flourish of his hand. Trump did say that.

But it was difficult to know how seriously to take the reports of the virus sweeping through Wuhan, China, earlier this year. At first, most reports were sketchy; Chinese officials were not exactly candid about what they knew, or whether they were trying to get to the bottom of things. In the early days, even Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, spoke cautiously about the likelihood that covid-19 was a threat to the United States, if only to avoid sparking a panic.

A campaign from the right to discredit Fauci is now in full swing, apparently because the media seems to admire him. In the past 24 hours, I’ve seen a 2013 email circulating on social media, allegedly from WikiLeaks, that Fauci wrote to Hillary Clinton praising her “stamina and capability” during her testimony as secretary of state before the congressional committee investigating the attacks in Benghazi, Libya. Pairing Fauci and Clinton is all that’s needed to revive the lock-her-up chorus and toss Fauci into the bargain.

An article recently posted on RealClearPolitics includes a timeline of comments made by Fauci that appear in retrospect to suggest he (and others) understated the significance of the virus. But a closer examination of the quotes often reveals that many are taken out of their full, and usually careful, context. It all prompts me to ask: Is that helpful?

As a result of all the blaming and shaming, it’s even more difficult than usual to know whom or what to believe. Weeks ago, we were told masks weren’t necessary. Now, apparently, we need them any time we leave the house. Could this have been foreseen? Common sense suggests as much. Would people have worn them? I don’t know. But the change in policy is unnerving, suggestive that lives could have been saved had we been more careful sooner. Anger about this back-and-forth is understandable, but it isn’t helpful.

There will be plenty of time when this is over to affix blame. In the meantime, as Queen Elizabeth II advised her nation and the world, we should remain calm. For the frustrated pirates among you, I’m told black flags make excellent masks.

Read more: