The epic struggle of the coronavirus pandemic: What and who to believe

by | Mar 22, 2020 | Detroit Free Press, Comment | 0 comments

The casualties are mounting, from human bodies to economic carnage to the societal unraveling that has us locked behind our doors. But at the bottom of the pile is the first victim of this COVID-19 pandemic, one that is continually assaulted, almost every day.

The truth.

The opening blow came from the Chinese government, who clearly lied about what they were seeing when the virus hit. That cover-up cost the world precious time, and knocked over the first domino.

Next came a message from the World Health Organization, which tweeted on Jan. 14 that China “found no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission of the novel coronavirus.” People believed that, so some didn’t act. After all, it’s the World Health Organization, right?

Less than two months later, that same WHO declared COVID-19 a “global pandemic.” By then, the world was on fire.

Germs spread. Mistruths do, too. Often, the latter does greater damage. Take the idea that COVID-19 was primarily transmitted through people coughing or sneezing out respiratory droplets. How many times did we hear that? It was repeated over and over by medical experts. And it seemed to make our job relatively easy: stay away from anyone coughing or sneezing, keep your hands constantly sanitized, and you should be OK.

Then reports emerged that a carrier needn’t be coughing or sneezing at all. In fact, we were told, the greater spread was probably by people who were asymptomatic — which changed everything we thought we knew. Suddenly, everyone was a potential carrier.

Why didn’t we know that before? Why did experts cite the coughing and sneezing thing?

The answer is that, when it comes to this virus, the truth is evolving.

“Once things got underway and the epidemic spread throughout the world, it became clear the models they had for person-to-person spread with cough (and sneezing) just didn’t fit the data,” Dr. Daniel Havlichek, who oversees the infectious diseases division at the Michigan State University College of Human Medicine, told me last week. “So they had to come up with what does fit the data. And that (now) includes people carrying the virus asymptomatically.”

In other words, as data changes, our understanding of what we’re fighting against changes. And the pursuit of its truth is like chasing a mouse.

Unpleasant mistruths

Then there’s the bending, twisting or outright crushing of the truth, which is caused not by germs, but by humans. China’s obstruction had disastrous effects, and frankly no one should believe any information coming from that country without extreme verification.

But we don’t live in China. We live in America. And the lying and backpedaling we have witnessed here during this crisis is shameful. From TV news hosts who dismissed this early on as pure politics, to senators who were briefed on the COVID-19 dangers and responded by selling off their stock but not sharing what they knew, to scam artists selling COVID-19 “cures” for profit, to troublemakers who spread phony rumors about martial law on the internet.

And of course, to the very top of our government, the White House, where even the most ardent supporters of President Trump are cringing at the train wreck he’s become in his biggest crisis.

From calling COVID-19 a “new hoax” created by his critics, to saying it is “contained” and “under control,” to saying “it’s going to disappear” and the number of cases would soon be “close to zero” — he has lied. You can support him and vote for him and love him and bless the day he was elected, but you can’t deny the quotes. Those are his words. All untrue.

So are these: “I have always known this is a real pandemic. I felt it was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic.”

Honestly? In such a serious time, you want to say, “Please, Mr. Trump, go play somewhere and let the grownups concentrate.” But you can’t. He’s the president. And almost every time he says something — about projections, about a Google website, about a potentially effective drug — someone else steps to the podium and tries to reshape the exaggeration he just blurted out.

In such cases, the truth seems like a paper clip. The President bends it, and others try to bend it back. But as with paper clips, you can never really get the truth reshaped properly. People believe pieces of what they hear, cobbling together a reality that fits their comfort zone.

That won’t do. A country can’t face a crisis like this with varying versions of the facts. The real story — no matter how bitter — should be coming to us with a single voice, from the top.

“I am a firm believer in the people. If given the truth, they can be depended upon to meet any national crisis.”

You know who said that?

Abraham Lincoln.

That’s how a president behaves.

Pleasant truths

But OK. There are other truths that circle in this crisis. And some of them are more pleasant to discover.

As celebrities and social media trendsetters fade into the background, a new truth appears that we don’t need them at all. We do just fine without late night talk show hosts telling us their spin on the country. We’re getting by without a flood of new movies and their overwhelming ad campaigns. We’re surviving without the endless cycle of sports news, or the rants and raves of an entitled athlete or commentator.

The fact that the normally popular Gwyneth Paltrow, for example, was flooded with criticism for posting about a $450 skirt as the nation was panicking shows that people can quickly dismiss the trivial when a proper light shines on it. Instagram models, TMZ, celebrity rumor sites, all feel quite silly now. The truth is they always have been. That’s a good truth to discover.

So is our appreciation for a walk outdoors, which people cherish now as the world closes in. So are meals with our family, a break from rush-hour traffic, reading, long phone conversations, home cooking, card games. It was always true that we could enjoy these things. But we forgot that fact in our rush to fill the day with accomplishments and activities.

Let’s be honest. We have lived for some time now in a world of exaggerations and myths. Sensational headlines. Phony boasting. Politicians and news organizations that knowingly mislead us.

The coronavirus has forced us to confront our vulnerability and our humanity. Those things always bring us closer to home. The casualties may be piling up. But unlike some of the victims in this tragic pandemic, the truth is something we can save.

And we must.

Contact Mitch Albom: Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at Download “The Sports Reporters” podcast each Monday and Thursday on-demand through Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify and more. Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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