from the free-speech-saves-lives dept
We’ve been writing a lot about the need for real transparency in the midst of a pandemic. The lessons to be learned from Taiwan’s transparency compared to China’s censorship and speech stifling are important. Tragically, it has become abundantly clear that the US is following the path of China, not Taiwan.
We’ve already covered hospitals trying to silence doctors and nurses from revealing what’s actually happening within their hospitals, Jared Kushner hiding his coronavirus task force efforts in a private email account, and the CDC’s tragic media gag order for its staff, but it’s looking much, much worse.
A bunch of stories came out on Wednesday that more or less show how hard the government is working towards silencing anyone “off message” within the administration. First came a NY Times report that head of the the HHS group working on a COVID-19 vaccine was dismissed from his job for daring to question Trump’s weird infatuation with hydroxychloroquine as the “miracle cure” to COVID-19 (which studies now suggest actually may be killing more patients than it’s saving). Dr. Rick Bright, who had been the director of the U.S. Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, released quite a statement about what happened:
“I believe this transfer was in response to my insistence that the government invest the billions of dollars allocated by Congress to address the COVID-19 pandemic into safe and scientifically vetted solutions, and not in drugs, vaccines and other technologies that lack scientific merit. I am speaking out because to combat this deadly virus, science — not politics or cronyism — has to lead the way.
I have spent my entire career in vaccine development, in the government with CDC and BARDA and also in the biotechnology industry. My professional background has prepared me for a moment like this — to confront and defeat a deadly virus that threatens Americans and people around the globe. To this point, I have led the government’s efforts to invest in the best science available to combat the COVID-19 pandemic.
Unfortunately, this resulted in clashes with H.H.S. political leadership, including criticism for my proactive efforts to invest early into vaccines and supplies critical to saving American lives. I also resisted efforts to fund potentially dangerous drugs promoted by those with political connections.
Specifically, and contrary to misguided directives, I limited the broad use of chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine, promoted by the administration as a panacea, but which clearly lack scientific merit.
While I am prepared to look at all options and to think ‘outside the box’ for effective treatments, I rightly resisted efforts to provide an unproven drug on demand to the American public. I insisted that these drugs be provided only to hospitalized patients with confirmed COVID-19 while under the supervision of a physician.
These drugs have potentially serious risks associated with them, including increased mortality observed in some recent studies in patients with COVID-19.
Sidelining me in the middle of this pandemic and placing politics and cronyism ahead of science puts lives at risk and stunts national efforts to safely and effectively address this urgent public health crisis.
I will request that the inspector general of the Department of Health and Human Services investigate the manner in which this administration has politicized the work of BARDA and has pressured me and other conscientious scientists to fund companies with political connections and efforts that lack scientific merit.
Rushing blindly towards unproven drugs can be disastrous and result in countless more deaths. Science, in service to the health and safety of the American people, must always trump politics.”
But, that’s not all. Around the same time that story came out, the Wall Street Journal reported that the administration wanted to fire Nancy Messonnier, the CDC official who had spoken out in February about the likelihood of COVID-19 becoming a global pandemic. Rather than heeding her words, they wanted to fire her (and did appear to gag her from speaking to the media).
On Feb. 25, Nancy Messonnier, a CDC official, said the agency was preparing for a potential pandemic and that community spread of the virus was likely. The stock market plunged.
At a media briefing later that day, Mr. Azar sought to quell concerns, saying the virus was “contained.”
But it was too late. A furious Mr. Trump, flying back to Washington from India, called Mr. Azar and threatened to oust Dr. Messonnier.
The next day, the president announced he was putting Vice President Pence in charge of the federal response—news Mr. Azar learned a few hours before the announcement.
And then, soon after those reports came out, in his daily
political rally press conference, the President hauled out CDC director, Robert Redfield, asking him say that the Washington Post misquoted him in its story warning that a second wave of COVID-19 infections could be even more problematic, as it could be timed to coincide with next winter’s flu season. Here’s what the Washington Post said:
“There’s a possibility that the assault of the virus on our nation next winter will actually be even more difficult than the one we just went through,” CDC Director Robert Redfield said in an interview with The Washington Post. “And when I’ve said this to others, they kind of put their head back, they don’t understand what I mean.”
“We’re going to have the flu epidemic and the coronavirus epidemic at the same time,” he said.
Trump claimed that Redfield was “totally misquoted” saying that he spoke to Redfield and that Redfield told him “it was ridiculous.”:
“I do want to mention, Dr. Robert Redfield was totally misquoted in the media about the fall season and the virus. Totally misquoted. I spoke to him and he said it was ridiculous,” the president said during the daily Coronavirus Task Force briefing at the White House.
“He was talking about the flu and coronavirus coming together at the same time, and we will knock it out. We’ll knock it out fast. That’s what he was referring to, coming together at the same time,” Trump continued.
“I would ask Dr. Redfield to straighten out. He didn’t say it was a big explosion. The headline in the Washington Post was ridiculous, which is, as I say, ‘fake news’ and CNN is fake news, which they knew.”
Except that he then called Redfield up to the podium… and he noted that he had been quoted accurately, but did want to “clarify” his quotes:
“The issue I was talking about being more difficult is that we’re going to have two viruses circulating at the same time. This spring we had a benefit of having the flu season ending so we could use all our flu surveillance systems to say this is coronavirus, we need to focus. Next fall and winter, we are going to have two viruses circulating and we are going to have to distinguish between which is flu and which is coronavirus. And so the comment that I made — it’s more difficult. It doesn’t mean it’s impossible, it doesn’t mean it’s going to be worse. It just means it’s more difficult because we have to distinguish between the two.”
Which is what the Washington Post article said. Some have argued that Redfield and Trump’s complaints are about the Washington Post’s headline, which claimed: “CDC director warns second wave of coronavirus is likely to be even more devastating” and it appears they’re taking issue with the use of the word “devastating.” But that seems to be a perfectly reasonable word to sum up what Redfield is saying. Indeed, as many people noted, before Trump threw this little temper tantrum, Redfield himself had retweeted the Washington Post article approvingly, saying nothing about the headline:
So, yet again, all of these stories suggest a similar theme: the President and the administration are — like the Chinese government — heavily focused on controlling the message, and making things look rosier than they really are, and not accurately telling the public and the press what is going on. And, once again, that’s a very real life or death situation. In times of crisis like this, leadership is the ability to tell the truth, no matter how bad, and put forth a plan of action to deal with the situation and to chart the best path forward while acknowledging the challenges. That’s not what this administration is doing. It’s trying to silence dissent, and look for any silly scrap of “positive spin” it can find.
And people are dying because of it.
Filed Under: cdc, china, covid-19, donald trump, free speech, hhs, messaging, nancy messonnier, rick bright, robert redfield, silencing, transparency, us