Letters to the Editor • Opinion
We already know how to prevent pandemics
Acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney defended the Trump administration's coronavirus response while speaking at CPAC on Feb. 28. (Video: The Washington Post)

Back in September, the United States was facing a potential catastrophe: Hurricane Dorian. But one leader wasn’t particularly clued-in on the actual threat Dorian posed. That leader was President Trump, who tweeted that Alabama would “most likely be hit [much] harder than anticipated.” Except by that point, Alabama was no longer anywhere in the hurricane’s potential path. After the National Weather Service’s Birmingham office corrected the misinformation, officials scrambled to justify Trump’s blatantly false claim, as internal emails have since shown. The whole thing culminated in Trump infamously displaying a hurricane forecast map that was altered with a Sharpie to suggest a possible hit on Alabama.

If you set aside the potential corruption of nonpartisan government officials, it was kind of a funny story. And Trump was, after all, urging people who were in no real danger to be unnecessarily prepared. There wasn’t really any immediate peril in that.

Coronavirus is the almost-complete inverse of that situation. Trump and his top political allies this time are seeking to minimize concerns, often in contrast with their own administration’s experts. In doing so, they are placing a heavy bet on coronavirus not becoming as deadly as health officials have warned it could. That has political implications, but more importantly, it could affect American lives.

The most recent official to go all-in on that bet Friday was acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney. Appearing at the Conservative Political Action Conference in suburban Washington, Mulvaney cast the coronavirus scare as a media construct and downplayed its lethality.

“The reason you’re seeing so much attention to it today is that they think this is going to be the thing that brings down the president,” Mulvaney said. “That’s what this is all about it.”

He added: “The flu kills people. This is not Ebola. It’s not SARS. It’s not MERS. It’s not a death sentence. It’s not the same as the Ebola crisis.”

There is some truth in what Mulvaney said — at least at this early juncture. Right now, coronavirus’s mortality rate is around 2 percent — far less than that of the previous epidemics he cited. There are also a very limited number of cases impacting Americans. That context is important and shouldn’t be glossed over. But coronavirus is also impacting a large number of people worldwide more quickly than Ebola, SARS and the others.

We don’t know what the eventual spread will be or how deadly it might turn out to be. Researchers are still studying the new strain of the coronavirus, trying to come up with a vaccine and figuring out exactly how it’s spreading. Just this week, we saw in California the first case of coronavirus infecting a patient without us knowing how it was transmitted.

There is a reason health officials often warn about worst-case scenarios: because even they don’t know how bad it might wind up being. Their modus operandi is to make sure people are planning for the worst rather than leaving themselves exposed because they underestimate the threat. First, do no harm. Those officials are also very importantly urging people to approach this with calm. In other words, there is nuance even in the very dire warnings.

Trump, though, appears spooked by the stock market, which has entered into a correction — i.e. a drop of more than 10 percent. He seems to regard the panic as a political liability. From the very beginning, he has made clear he is very much thinking about what this means for him personally, and he cemented that at Wednesday night’s news conference. By Thursday, he was floating the idea that coronavirus could miraculously disappear all of a sudden. “It’s going to disappear,” Trump said. “One day it’s like a miracle, it will disappear.”

His allies have gone whole-hog on that approach. Mulvaney wasn’t the only one hitting the media for allegedly blowing this out of proportion. So did people such as Donald Trump Jr., who ridiculously accused Trump’s opponents of rooting for a pandemic. White House chief economic adviser Larry Kudlow assured Tuesday, “We have contained this — I won’t say airtight, but pretty close to airtight."

Perhaps they believe it’s their duty to echo Trump’s message. Perhaps they genuinely think this is being overblown. And perhaps they see some upside if coronavirus fizzles out and they can use this as a cudgel against those who warned about the worst.

But that’s a hell of a gamble. The biggest danger here isn’t in a momentary market correction — one that would likely be an afterthought by November if coronavirus does fizzle out. The danger is if it does get anywhere near as bad as some have warned, and they spent all this time downplaying that possibility. At that point, these early pronouncements wouldn’t just look bad politically; they would have arguably cost lives.

That’s the very perilous bet Trump, Mulvaney and the others are placing. The experience of Hurricane Dorian and Trump’s more than 16,000 false and misleading claims as president should certainly weigh on his credibility in this moment. But this situation is eminently more dangerous.

The media’s job in a moment like this is difficult. Accurately passing along information is paramount, but so is making sure the threat isn’t being underestimated. There is some danger in overhyping things — especially if it happens too often — because it can lead to a boy-who-cried-wolf situation.

But in this case, the vast majority of the media is accurately pointing out that Trump’s assurances and minimization of the threat don’t line up with the actual scientists who are studying this. That’s important and is an extraordinary state of affairs that can’t be ignored. If it turns out coronavirus doesn’t realize the worst-case projections, it won’t mean that reporting was wrong; it will just mean that Trump got very, very lucky that he didn’t make the situation worse.