For too long, the media downplayed the danger of coronavirus

For too long, the media downplayed the danger of coronavirus
A coronavirus. CDC: Dr. Fred Murphy & Sylvia Whitfield

Coronavirus is a huge, costly problem. About 20,000 people have died so far this month from coronavirus, including at least 900 in the United States. At least 133 Americans died of it today, March 25. Congress is now passing a $2 trillion spending bill in response to it that will triple the budget deficit and make the national debt skyrocket.

But I didn’t start writing about coronavirus until a couple weeks ago, when I repeatedly called for the closure of the schools to reduce the spread of the disease and give the healthcare system time to cope.

Why did I wait so long to sound the alarm about coronavirus? Because the media downplayed the problem, and I trusted them, given my lack of expertise in medicine and epidemiology.

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The media systematically understated the threat to our country and the world posed by coronavirus. For example, a Washington Post article in February said, “Get a grippe, America. The flu is a much bigger threat than coronavirus, for now.” On March 4, CNN’s Anderson Cooper said, “if you’re freaked out about the Coronavirus you should be more concerned about the flu.” CNN wrote, “Why are some fears misguided? While the novel coronavirus has infected more than 75,000 people” worldwide, “it’s caused far fewer deaths than the flu … since the novel coronavirus was first detected in the United States in January, 15 people have been diagnosed with the illness as of Wednesday. None of them has died.” The Daily Beast wrote that “coronavirus, with zero American fatalities, is dominating headlines, while the flu is the real threat.”

As journalist Brent Scher notes, a month ago, CNN was “telling readers that the coronavirus was basically just a less severe, less contagious seasonal flu causing racist attacks against Asians.” As a CNN article put it, “What’s spreading faster than coronavirus in the US? Racist assaults and ignorant attacks against Asians.”

That mindset was echoed by the Washington Post. It argued that “our brains make coronavirus seem scarier than it is” and that “we should be wary of an aggressive government response to coronavirus.” For example, it said that “fighting coronavirus with travel bans is a mistake.”

Similarly, Vox minimized the risks posed by coronavirus. “Is this going to be a deadly pandemic? No,” it said. “For most people in the US, though, there’s really no reason to worry,” Vox said. Instead, it claimed, the panic over coronavirus exposed “the history of racism and ‘cleanliness.'”

The New York Times suggested that fears triggered by coronavirus were a bigger problem than coronavirus itself. It wrote that “in Europe, fear spreads faster than the coronavirus itself.” It suggested that racism against Asians spawned by coronavirus was the real problem, not the disease itself, and that “the risk of catching it” is “low.”

Conservative commentators at places like Fox called the alarm being raised over coronavirus a “scam” and a “hoax.”

The media’s downplaying the danger of coronavirus mattered enormously. It prevented coronavirus from being nipped in the bud. It led to infections from the disease growing exponentially, to many times larger of a problem than if aggressive measures had been taken against it even a few days earlier. Left unchecked, coronavirus cases can double every three days and rise a thousand times in a month.

I have degrees in law, economics, and history — not medicine. So I relied on the media to keep me informed about any major health risks posed by coronavirus, trusting that the media would seek out medical experts to shed light on any such risks.

That turned out to be a mistake on my part, given the media’s pervasive failure to adequately warn the public about the danger posed by coronavirus.

Hans Bader

Hans Bader

Hans Bader practices law in Washington, D.C. After studying economics and history at the University of Virginia and law at Harvard, he practiced civil-rights, international-trade, and constitutional law. He also once worked in the Education Department. Hans writes for and has appeared on C-SPAN’s “Washington Journal.” Contact him at


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