Look Over There! (Not Here)

The conspiracy theorists and blame shifters are hard at work at the highest levels of our government, and the rest of the Republican Party is falling into line. On Friday, April 17, the Spokesman shared an Associated Press article entitled, “Trump, aides float outlier theory on origins of coronavirus.” This quote stood out:

“More and more, we’re hearing the story,” Trump says. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo adds, “The mere fact that we don’t know the answers – that China hasn’t shared the answers – I think is very, very telling.”

“More and more we’re hearing the story.” No surprise there. Over the last few weeks especially, the cesspools of conspiracy theory on Fox News, The Epoch Times, and a host of less widely known sources on the net have churned out stories suggesting the Chinese are systematically hiding important facts about coronavirus. The common theme is distrust.

It has been interesting–and unsettling–to watch the right wing media build-up to Trump “hearing the story.” About two weeks ago a Limbaugh-devotee of my acquaintance emailed me an article that accused the Chinese of vastly under-reporting their number of dead from COVID-19. The evidence? Rapidly spreading hearsay around photographs and reports of large numbers of funerary urns shipped to the Wuhan region and rumbling accusations that the Chinese Communist Party was hiding from their own people the truth about of the numbers of dead from Corvid-19. Googling “Wuhan crematorium” yields a huge news bubble led by one article posted in “Radio Free Asia” published March 27. Note that Radio Free Asia is a U.S. government funded non-profit, “anti-communist” outlet. This RFA article planted the initial seed of distrust. 

Is all this hearsay backed up by fact? Burning thousands of bodies might produce measurable changes in air pollution, for example, an increase in sulphur dioxide emissions. Showing a spike in SO2 would a key fact. In a brilliant demonstration of the adage that a lie can make it halfway around the world before the truth gets it shoes on, such a confirmation first appeared as a satellite photo on Twitter on February 9. It was re-tweeted more than 12,000 times and was covered by uncritical media the world over, thoroughly embedding distrust in the minds of millions of readers. The trouble is that the striking satellite photo displayed showed no such thing. NASA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, to which the SO2 data was attributed, denies that it even makes such fine-grained measurements. The whole sad story of this mis-information can be reviewed here at AFP Fact Check

That the Chinese cannot be trusted is a powerful message for the news consumer, especially with a leading nationalist and xenophobe at the helm of government. The story, it’s origin and veracity unquestioned, was amplified in social media and (mostly) right wing conventional media outlets like Fox.

Then someone noticed the Wuhan Institute of Virology is located in, well–Wuhan–and that researchers there are studying (among other things) coronaviruses in wild animals, including bats (a prominent reservoir of coronaviruses, for reasons of bat physiology). The conspiracy theorists keep it in the news. For a detailed analysis read “Inside the Viral Spread of a Coronavirus Origin Theory” 

Clearly, something was up when my media feed produced this headline from Fox on April 16: “Sources believe coronavirus outbreak originated in Wuhan lab as part of China’s efforts to compete with US.” The same day a Fox banner floated through my media feed reading something like, “Attorney General William Barr demands China ‘come clean’ on coronavirus” and Trump said he would defund the World Health Organization (WHO)–in the midst of a worldwide pandemic.

“More and more we’re hearing the story,” Trump says. Our conspiracy theorist-in-chief, a man unable to understand the threat of exponential spread of Covid-19 for weeks, but an avid listener to listener to the wisdom of Fox, is “hearing the story.”

“Look over there, get excited about my defunding WHO, but, whatever you do, take your eyes off my ignorance and incompetence in the face of this pandemic. I will dominate the news!”

Then there are Cathy McMorris Rodgers (WA-CD5) and Sen. Jim Rich (ID) climbing on board last Thursday in agreement with Trump that WHO must be investigated. They must be “More and more hearing the story,” too. 

Keep to the high ground,

P.S. For me, this quote of the last two paragraphs of the extensive Vanity Fair article on this conspiracy theory points up the clearest reasoning on the original of SARS-CoV-2 I’ve found:

Bill Hanage, associate professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health’s Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics, doesn’t buy it at all. Given the highly elusive nature of SARS-CoV-2, and how we are learning that it causes a lot of minimally symptomatic infections alongside the serious ones that crash health care systems, he said, it strains credulity to imagine that anybody would have extracted it from a bat and actually been able to realize what they were dealing with to the point that it would warrant serious study in a lab for dangerous diseases. It’s also hard for Hanage to believe that any researchers who might have been studying the virus would have understood what it was capable of—in other words, he said, it’s more logical to believe that the new coronavirus was never in a lab in the first place.

“If the first case of this had been anywhere at all in the world, somebody would have found something suspicious nearby,” he said. “If it were in Boston, it would be the National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories. If there is evidence to really support this theory beyond the coincidence of the location of the lab, then I haven’t seen it, and I don’t make decisions on the basis of coincidence.” Hanage’s scientific opinion? “I would probably leave it in the conspiracy theory area.”