On the same day that the World Health Organization (WHO) pegged the global death rate of the novel coronavirus at 3.4 percent — a figure higher than earlier estimates — President Donald Trump went on Sean Hannity’s Fox News show and insisted it’s actually not that bad.
As cases spread across the United States (in part because of expanding testing) and states declare public health emergencies, Trump cited a “hunch” to make a case that the mortality rate is actually “a fraction of 1 percent.” He recklessly dismissed the WHO mortality rate as “really a false number,” used bogus numbers to compare the coronavirus to the much less deadly seasonal flu, and didn’t discourage people with Covid-19 (the disease caused by coronavirus) from going to work.
It was a blizzard of dangerous, irresponsible misinformation, all delivered within a span of just over two minutes. Hannity responded not by challenging the president, but by quickly changing the topic.
The episode illustrated the dangers of Trump leading a response to a public health emergency — and how out of step he is with public health experts within his own administration.
“Now, this is just my hunch”
Trump’s soliloquy about an illness he misleadingly described as “this corona flu” began after Hannity asked him to respond to the WHO’s 3.4 percent death rate figure (which the organization said could vary by region). He was also asked about the possibility that the Summer Olympics scheduled for this summer in Tokyo could be delayed.
Here’s the entirety of Trump’s response, followed by the video.
I think the 3.4 percent [number] is really a false number. Now, this is just my hunch, but based on and lot of conversations with a lot of people that do this, because a lot of people will have this and it is very mild. They will get better very rapidly, they don’t even see a doctor or call doctor, you never hear about those people so you can’t put them down in the category, in overall population in terms of this corona flu, or virus. So you just can’t do that.
So if, you know, we have thousands or hundreds of thousands of people that get better, just by, you know, sitting around and even going to work, some of them go to work, but they get better and then, when you do have a death like you had in the state of Washington, like you had one in California, I believe you had one in New York, you know, all of a sudden it seems like 3 or 4 percent, which is a very high number, as opposed to a fraction of 1 percent.
But again, they don’t know about the easy cases because the easy cases don’t go to the hospital, they don’t report to doctors or the hospital in many cases so I think that [the WHO] number is very high. I think the number, personally, I would say the number is way under 1 percent.
Now, with the regular flu, we average from 27,000 to 77,000 deaths a year. Who would think that? I never knew that until six or eight weeks ago, I asked that question, I said, ‘How many people die of the flu?’ You know, you keep hearing about ‘flu shot, flu shot, take your flu shot,’ but how many people die of the flu? And they said, ‘sir, we lose between 27,000 and, you know, somewhere in the 70s’ — I think we went as high as 100,000 people died in 1990, if you can believe that, but a lot much people regardless. I think it averages about 36,000 people a year. So I said, ‘Wow, that is a percentage that is under 1 percent, very substantially.’ So it’d be interesting to see what difference is but again, a lot of people don’t report.
In this clip, Trump:— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) March 5, 2020
1. Denies WHO's coronavirus death rate based on “hunch"
2. Calls coronavirus "corona flu"
3. Suggests it's fine for people w/ Covid-19 to go to work
4. Compares coronavirus to "the regular flu," indicating he doesn't get the difference pic.twitter.com/uC9c03zX31
While public health experts are still gathering data that will inform what the precise death rate figure is, there is little doubt the coronavirus is much more deadly than the flu. Trump could listen to Dr. Anthony Fauci, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases director, who said during hearings this week of the coronavirus that “the mortality of this is multiple times what the seasonal flu is.”
In a Thursday hearing before the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, Dr. Peter Hotez, of the Baylor College of Medicine, echoed Fauci.
“In attempt to calm public fears, you’re hearing things like, ‘it’s a mild illness, this is like flu.’ It’s not really the case, because this is an unusual virus,” Hotez said. “For many young people, it is a mild illness, but we’re seeing some devastating things. And we got a heads up about this from the Chinese ... nursing homes. Look at what this virus did at that nursing home in Kirkland, Washington, it rolled through like a train.”
As Hotez alluded to, coronavirus is especially dangerous for elderly people like those at a Life Care Center in Kirkland, Washington, where at least five deaths have already been linked to the virus following an outbreak in the facility. Health care workers and first responders are also at higher risk of infection, according to Hotez.
But Trump instead downplayed the danger in general. And while Trump may think it’s no big deal that people with Covid-19 symptoms are “sitting around and even going to work,” Fauci pointed out during hearings that the best course of action is “when someone is suspected of being exposed they either self-isolate or they get actually institutional quarantine.” But if someone listened to Trump’s advice, they might show up at work with symptoms and spread the virus.
While it was arguably far down the list of irresponsible comments he made in that clip, Trump’s claim that 100,000 people died from the flu in 1990 was also way, way off the mark. According to the CDC, the number of influenza-associated deaths in the US that year was actually around 31,000.
But the number of people in the US who died from the flu in 1990 is beside the point right now — what matters for public officials like Trump is providing people with the information they need to stop the Covid-19 outbreak from getting worse. Trump, however, seems to still be more concerned with saying whatever he thinks will allay uncertainty in the stock markets.
“PRES TRUMP SPEAKS OUT ON CORONAVIRUS”
Even though Trump’s comments were completely out of step with what experts are saying, Fox News wasted no time normalizing them as one side of an argument.
trump goes on a completely irresponsible and medically illiterate rant about a pandemic, and fox news treats it as trump owning the media pic.twitter.com/NGVh4Yv4xa— John Whitehouse (@existentialfish) March 5, 2020
The president clearly perceives that it’s in his political self-interest to downplay coronavirus, and Fox News — at least during its primetime programming — is taking his lead.
This approach might fend off negative news cycles for a while, but at the cost of jeopardizing the well being not only of those who take the president seriously, but also those who come into close contact with them in the workplace or elsewhere.
As his comments to Hannity were widely criticized on Thursday morning — including by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), who told reporters that he would “encourage the president if he’s going to report things to make sure the science is behind what he’s saying” — Trump took to Twitter and tried to hit back.
“I NEVER said people that are feeling sick should go to work,” he wrote. “This is just more Fake News and disinformation put out by the Democrats, in particular MSDNC. Comcast covers the CoronaVirus situation horribly, only looking to do harm to the incredible & successful effort being made!”
I NEVER said people that are feeling sick should go to work. This is just more Fake News and disinformation put out by the Democrats, in particular MSDNC. Comcast covers the CoronaVirus situation horribly, only looking to do harm to the incredible & successful effort being made!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 5, 2020
While it’s true that Trump didn’t say people who are feeling sick should go to work, he certainly suggested it’s no big deal with his comment that “we have thousands or hundreds of thousands of people that get better, just by, you know, sitting around and even going to work, some of them go to work, but they get better.”
And it’s notable that instead of trying to correct the record by sharing responsible information, Trump instead tried to turn the episode into a line of attack against his perceived enemies at MSNBC. He just can’t help himself.