Of all the quotes attributed to Abraham Lincoln, this might be one of the most repeated: “You can fool all of the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you can’t fool all the people all the time.”
Or maybe Lincoln never said that. Wherever the quote came from, though, try substituting the word “scare” for the word “fool.” That describes much of the mass media coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic.
These days, the nation — and the media, for that matter — is suffering from coronavirus fatigue. It’s a side effect.
In many cases, we’ve grown accustomed to the face masks, even when they’re worn by incongruous authority figures like Mitch McConnell or Joe Biden. We’ve learned to forego some of the pleasures of life, like visiting a restaurant, getting haircuts or hugging people outside of our immediate families. It’s much harder to adjust to no longer having a job, but that’s also becoming part of the new reality for a lot of us.
Nevertheless, it has also become more and more tempting just to roll the dice and sneak back into our old lives, hoping no one will notice.
I can’t tell you anything about the virus itself — my degree was in history, not medicine. Still, a long career in the newspaper business taught me enough that I can now see what appear to be flaws in the general pandemic press coverage.
Too many numbers, for one thing. Vast and dire figures that aren’t connected to a particular point in time or single tragic episode tend to roll off our consciousness. From the vantage point of their soap boxes, TV reporters or newspaper editorial writers often proclaim: “It’s now up to (the current number of COVID-19 deaths)! That’s more people than died on Sept. 11! More than in the Vietnam War! What’s wrong with you out there — don’t you see that?”
Of course, we see it. But the 2,977 people who died on Sept. 11, 2001 died all at once. Had they been exposed to some sort of slow-acting poison that killed them over a period years, a few at a time, that 2,977 number wouldn’t have had nearly the same mind-boggling impact — especially if the World Trade Center buildings were still standing.
The Vietnam War, meanwhile, was reminiscent of that proverbial frog being slowly boiled to death. We forget that it all started back in the 1950s, when we sent over a few advisors. Some of those were killed, so we sent in more advisors, then a few troops, then a lot more. Yet except for a few brief but intense confrontations, there were very few major battles fought during the 20-plus years of our Southeast Asian involvement. Rather, the majority of those 280,000 or so American deaths occurred gradually.
Moreover, it can be argued that it wasn’t all those deaths, awful as they were, that finally ended the madness. Indeed, those individual tragedies were often used as a rationale for continuing the fight — “If we leave now, all those people will have died in vain.”
Nor was it the fact that our stated reasons for being there no longer made much sense, or that the government we were defending turned out to be vicious and corrupt. Perhaps the war ended, more than anything else, because of the draft.
The specter of conscription was what made it personal for so many Americans. Even if they were in no danger of being drafted themselves, they had family members or acquaintances in harm’s way. That gave them the incentive to take to the streets, to the point where remaining in Vietnam became more uncomfortable for the U.S. government than leaving.
There is no coronavirus draft, and thus nothing to make the pandemic uncomfortably personal for “all of the people, all of the time.”
Yes, the media has tried hard to report on COVID-19 in a responsible way, but the sheer variety of news sources — plus the intrusion of politics into the mix and a natural tendency towards immediacy — risked sowing confusion.
Masks aren’t really necessary. No, wait — they are necessary. For kids, COVID-19 is just another form of flu. No, wait — kids can die from this, too.
The inescapable fact is that the virus doesn’t kill everyone it infects, just around 10 percent. Yet whenever a well-known person flunks his or her virus test, the news outlets often seem ready to check them into hospice. Then, if they ever follow up at all, they usually report in a single paragraph or soundbite that the afflicted celebrity had few, if any, symptoms and had recovered nicely. No wonder we’re all bewildered.
Again, I see a similarity to Vietnam. If you were sent there, the chances were that you wouldn’t be killed, or even seriously injured. At the same time, thousands were, and there was no way of predicting in which group you might land. Even non-combatants died.
One thing I remember from my newspaper days is that readers paid a lot more attention to a single poignant story about one individual or family than to a huge casualty figure or a general statement designed to scare them into doing the right thing.
Maybe the message should simply be: “Aren’t you’re sick of all this? Let’s take a little time, endure a few sacrifices, and make it go away.”