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The Coronavirus:  Different Approaches to Informing the Public from Around the World, and the Ensuing Dangers

Update 2-29-20:   After the White House apparently muzzled Dr. Anthony Fauci and other leading government medical officials to avoid inconsistent messages about potential catastrophic pandemics, Fauci appeared on MSNBC to provide an update on the coronavirus outbreak.  A wise move, as the history of suppression of unwelcome news of global crises has shown.

Lest there be any doubt about the dangers of government control of a nation’s media, one need look no further than China.  As reporter Li Yuan of The New York Times reports, “Beijing is tapping its old playbook as it battles the relentless coronavirus outbreak, the biggest challenge to its legitimacy in decades.  State media is filling smartphones and airwaves with images and tales of unity and sacrifice aimed at uniting the people behind Beijing’s rule. . . . The problem for China’s leaders:  This time, it isn’t working so well.”

The problem, perhaps unsurprisingly, is China’s lack of transparency.  As Yuan wrote, “The government was slow to disclose the threat of the coronavirus and worked to suppress the voices of those who tried to warn the country.  In doing so, it undermined its implicit deal with its people, in which they trade away their individual rights for the promise of security.”

And yet China is not alone.  Japan, ostensibly a democracy, is not much better.  So says a Tokyo-based political science professor, Koichi Nakano. As Nakano wrote:  “The Japanese bureaucracy is notoriously dominated by a culture of ‘kotonakare shugi’ (literally, ‘no-problem-ism’), which prioritizes stability and conformity, and shuns anything that might rock the institutional boat. Sound the alarm about an impending crisis and you might be blamed for it.”

Perhaps worse than shielding the public from the harsh realities of the coronavirus, some government officials in Iran are cruelly turning a blind eye to the disastrous consequences that the virus could instill upon people.  Indeed, one official encouraged Iranians to visit the small city of Qom – a seat of Shiite learning – despite the fact that a local health official said the coronavirus was burning through the community.

Italy apparently has been more forthcoming to the public in its handling of the coronavirus, though the country faces potentially massive economic uncertainty.

Fortunately, we live in America, where public officials such as renowned virus expert Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and a longtime veteran of both Republican and Democratic administrations, can alert the nation about the dangers this virus portends, as he did recently.

But not anymore.  Now the White House has muzzled Dr. Fauci.  As The New York Times reported, the White House has instructed Dr. Fauci and other government health experts not to say anything about the coronavirus without getting clearance through Vice President Mike Pence, whom President Trump has put in charge of government messaging.

Perhaps this move is, as the White House claims, intended to present a “coordinated” message from the Executive Branch about this life-killing outbreak.  More likely, many critics say, is that it is a coordinated effort to stem political fallout in an election year.

The coronavirus has already revealed the fatal flaw in authoritarian regimes. One can only hope that this fatal flaw will not reach U.S. soil.  If the public does not believe the government, the public is gravely at risk.

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