WALSH: On The Coronavirus, Stop Listening To Pundits Like Me

ear listening
Photo by Nipitphon Na Chiangmai/EyeEm/Getty Images

As I have admitted, I was wrong about the coronavirus. About a month and a half ago, back when the disease was just beginning to get headline news coverage, I wrote a rather embarrassing article where I purported to be giving the “real facts” about this virus that I knew almost nothing about. At the time I was sure that the virus was mostly media hype and that the five or so people in the United States who had contracted it would probably not spread it. I claimed that “there is no good reason to think” that the epidemic would spread very far in our country or the globe.

We’re now at almost 180,000 worldwide cases, 7,000 deaths, with about 3,500 infections in the US and nearly 70 deaths. These numbers are all trending exponentially upward in several countries including our own. The illness ravaged Italy and now threatens to hit Spain even harder, as new cases surged by 1,400 in just one night. Governments across the globe are imposing mass quarantines and shutdowns. In our country, many states have closed schools, possibly for the rest of the year, and some have even started to shut down restaurants, bars, and other businesses where large numbers of people gather. I did not see any of this coming. The few in media who predicted this two months ago seemed hysterical to me at the time. Now here we are.

Not to deflect blame, but I am far from the only pundit, commentator, or media personality who got it wrong. Some jumped on the “this is no big deal” bandwagon weeks ago and are still refusing to get off. They’ll ride it right over the edge and claim vindication the whole while. Some have gone through a series of pivots, switching from “this is all hype” to “okay it’s real but the flu is worse” to “okay maybe this is worse but the real problem is the panic.”

On the other side, there are those in media who have been warning about a global pandemic for weeks, but they are the same ones who insisted that Trump was leading us into nuclear war with Iran, and that he’s a Hitler-esque despot planning to install himself as dictator of the continent, and that any number of other catastrophes would befall us because Trump did something or failed to do something else. Maybe they’re being sincere in their coronavirus analysis. But there’s no way to trust them. You get the distinct impression that they’re rooting for global havoc because it would be in their political interest. That may be a cynical interpretation, but we have every reason to be cynical at this point.

The point is that, in this Age of Information, there are many talking heads sharing their opinions and prognostications and prophecies about this pandemic and its relative severity, and almost all of them — all of us, I should say — are speaking from a place of near-total ignorance. We have never studied pandemics or thought much about the issue until now; we barely understand the science involved, and we are politically biased. Whenever you hear one of us sharing our opinion on the coronavirus, or read one of our tweets, or an article like this one, in your mind you should preface it with: “An individual with no related expertise and no base of knowledge on the subject and who couldn’t even tell you exactly what a virus is, has the following opinion…”

This applies not just to the “professional” pundits, but almost anyone who is on Twitter or Facebook or any other social media site issuing confident proclamations about the virus, the threat it poses, and the government’s response to it. Very few of them — of you, of me — have anything like a deep understanding of pandemics, viruses, how they spread, and how likely it is that a particular virus will wreak significant destruction. Very few of us saw this coming or can predict where it’s headed. Very few of us have given any significant thought to quandaries like: “Is it worth it to take measures that may cause devastation to the national economy in order to potentially save thousands of lives?” Of course this probably depends on how much devastation, and how many lives, and how likely it is that the measures will actually devastate the economy or save lives. It’s a complex moral issue with many unknowns. Yet as soon as New York announced the closure of restaurants and bars on Sunday, the internet was filled with people who’d apparently considered it for 14 seconds and already arrived at a firm conclusion. Some of them are in media, and have spent the past day arguing for the instinctive conclusion they formed the very moment the issue presented itself to them.

This is all a serious problem because in times like these, people need information and guidance. And they need to know that they can trust what they’re told. But with so many blustering jackasses spouting off at the mouth, and with a mainstream media so aggressively partisan and hopelessly lacking in basic integrity, the potential that people will either be led into panic or reckless apathy is significant. And that’s probably why we have an environment now where some people are bum rushing each other at grocery stores for fear of an imminent societal collapse, and others haven’t adjusted their lifestyle at all, confident that this whole pandemic deal is a hoax. Both of these extremes are dangerous. And both are fueled by misinformation spread by the media and the internet mob.

So, whom should we trust? I think the best thing we can all do is seek out people who have relevant knowledge and experience, a real understanding of the science involved, and who are apolitical — at least as apolitical as a person can reasonably be. Dr. Fauci of the NIH seems to fit this bill. Articles by epidemiologists and virologists are helpful. The CDC and WHO are hardly apolitical, and certainly can’t be trusted implicitly on all subjects, but it would be foolish to dismiss them as a resource in this case. It also seems wise to listen to ER doctors and nurses who have actually dealt with this disease and seen it first hand. We cannot trust any one of these sources as absolute authorities, but if we consult them all, and take them together, and keep always in mind the human tendency to understate or exaggerate depending on the circumstance, then we can perhaps begin to form a reasonable and responsible perspective on all of this.

Media people like me, and your random Facebook and Twitter friends, may have interesting things to say about some of the peripheral issues related to the coronavirus. But as for the thing itself — how dangerous it is now, how dangerous it might be next week, etc — we’d probably do well to tune out the peanut gallery and take our advice from those who are actually suited to give it.