Janine Jackson interviewed FAIR’s Jim Naureckas about the Covid-19 resurgence for the June 26, 2020, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.PlayStop pop out
Janine Jackson: AP reports hospitalizations and case loads from the novel coronavirus rising to new highs in several US states. In some places, new cases more than doubled. Only the truly selective listener can avoid accepting that this country’s abject mismanagement and failure of leadership continue to lead to thousands and thousands of avoidable deaths and illnesses. But the US is still pushing to “reopen,” because the people most likely to be harmed have less political clout than those who can more comfortably avoid hazards.
It’s a kind of nightmare playing out in broad daylight, but have corporate media given up on doing more than charting it? How else could they meaningfully intervene?
For an update on the pandemic and media’s coverage of it, we’re joined now in studio by FAIR’s editor Jim Naureckas. Welcome back to CounterSpin, Jim Naureckas.
Jim Naureckas: Thanks for having me back on.
JJ: I think if you just landed from space and skimmed the news media, you’d see places in the country described as in various “phases” of “reopening.” And you would think that, though there might be disagreement about it, the US had essentially weathered the worst, and was moving cautiously toward recovery.
For those who can’t bring themselves to look at the latest information, or who are frankly confused by it, where is the US right now in terms of beating back the pandemic, compared to other places in the world?
JN: It is very striking when you look at the course of the coronavirus in the United States, and you compare it to what’s going on, particularly, in other wealthy countries that have the same kind of resources that the United States has. The contrast between the countries that have brought the spread of coronavirus virtually to a halt and the United States, which, after a slight drop from the worst spread in April, down to a kind of plateau of maybe two-thirds of what we were seeing, is now headed sharply back up, and we will soon—barring some reversal of fortune—be passing up the heights that we reached before, be on uncharted territory of levels of this pandemic.
JJ: It’s just incredible when you see just the images of the trajectory, the line in the US going up and up compared to other countries. It’s frankly heartbreaking and infuriating.
JN: It really does call into question the whole model of US media, which is based on this idea that everyone should be able to read a newspaper and think, “Well, that’s pretty much the way I see the world.” And when you have a political party, that is in power, taking the position that a deadly danger is not really so dangerous, and in fact will fade away without us doing anything about it, to produce news that will allow people with that worldview to say, “Well, yeah, this is speaking for me, this is covering the world as I see it,” to try to mesh that kind of denial into a realistic view of a serious, deadly problem facing the nation—it inevitably produces just confusion, and a completely incomprehensible picture of what’s going on; that is the basis for people saying, “I think that we’ve got this pretty much under control now, and are ready to go about business more or less as usual.” The kind of spike that we’re seeing is the direct consequence of that kind of approach.
JJ: When you were here last month, you were taking issue with New York Times reporting on Sweden, as having had apparent success without anything so extreme as a lockdown. Their “experience would seem to argue for less caution, not more,” said that Times piece by Thomas Erdbrink and Christina Anderson. What’s the latest there?
JN: We have looked at Sweden a couple times at FAIR, because it has been offered as this sort of alternative approach to the coronavirus—that, really, you don’t have to take it so seriously, and can let it run its course, and eventually you’ll be immune, you’ll have herd immunity.
This was never borne out by the numbers. When people were saying, “Look how well Sweden has done,” Sweden had not done well at all. I believe when we wrote the first piece on it, it had the tenth-highest per capita death toll in the world, and compared to its neighbors was just looking terrible.
And now, the latest piece that we saw in the New York Times was about how the other Scandinavian countries—Norway, Denmark, Finland—are not letting people from Sweden into their country. And it’s because those countries have basically halted coronavirus, and are now able to resume life more or less as usual, while being careful to look for the stray outbreaks. Whereas Sweden, it’s still running rampant.
And the same writer, Thomas Erdbrink from the New York Times, was writing now about Sweden being shut out of the other countries. And he really made it sound like this had a lot to do with the resentment that other Scandinavian countries feel towards the success of Sweden. And he cited IKEA and Volvo and ABBA as reasons why they are so jealous. And they took seriously this idea that it’s not the fact that, in the case of Finland, they have 1/100th of the amount of new infections as Sweden; I think the closest is Denmark, which has one-twelfth of the infections of Sweden.
And the idea that you would, after you’ve painstakingly driven out this disease, at considerable cost, that you would let people from a country that has really not taken the disease seriously at all, just wander into your country and start new outbreaks, is kind of crazy. But for the New York Times, the reporter, who had been touting Sweden as a model, seemed unwilling to acknowledge just how crazy it would be to let a country that had followed this model wander around your country without restriction.
JJ: Yeah, surely it must just be that ABBA resentment that is driving that conflict. Well, that earlier Times piece described Swedes as “laugh[ing] and bask[ing] in freedoms considered normal in most parts of the world not long ago.” And it’s obvious that some politicians and pundits here think that laughing and basking in freedom is the cure for whatever ails, but it seems like the EU restrictions that we’ve just seen on travel from the United States, that’s gotta throw some kind of cold water on this magical thinking, doesn’t it?
JN: Our relationship to the European Union is very much like the relationship of Sweden to the other Scandinavian countries. While we have been acting like we’ve done a good enough job on the coronavirus, and now can get back to what we were doing before, other countries have really taken seriously the fact that they have this deadly pandemic going on, and have brought the spread down to—I don’t think any European country has eliminated it, but they have very much brought new cases down to a trickle. Europe is talking about letting international travel resume, and they’re making lists of the countries that can and can’t send their people to the European Union, and, according to the New York Times, it looks like the United States is definitely going to be on the do not visit list, which, again, it would be nonsensical to have put the effort into controlling this virus, and then let people from a place that has not made a real effort to control it into your country, because a substantial number of people in United States are carrying this virus, and would spread it to their European destinations.
JJ: The pandemic and anti–police violence protests are obviously the megastories of the day, and they do intersect. It’s kind of been kind of a thing going around that we’ve been hearing about; what do you think we should know about the notion of marches and demonstrations as potential virus spreaders?
JN: You do see a lot of people talking about how dangerous it is to protest, and how this is going to inevitably result in a spike in cases. And it really hasn’t; when you look at places like New York; like Minneapolis, Minnesota; the District of Columbia, where there have been a lot of protests, you have not seen a corresponding spike in infections. The places where you have seen big spikes are largely in the South and West, where places have declared it was time to resume normal business operations.
I really think that people underestimate the distinction between outdoor and indoor activities, and activities with masks and without masks; those really do make a huge difference in terms of the danger of spreading the disease.
And also the fact that the number of people involved in an activity makes a great deal of difference. If you’re talking about something that a few percent of the population is doing, it’s obviously going to have a much smaller impact on the trajectory of the infection than something that most of the population is doing.
But when you see people doing something that you don’t like, there’s a tendency to think, “Oh, well, that’s a thing that they shouldn’t be doing anyway. If there’s any risk at all, it’s too much risk.” And people really need to be thinking more probabilistically. Are you really increasing your chances of spreading the virus, compared to what you would be doing in your everyday life? And how many people are doing it?
Which is why I think the most dangerous thing that people can be doing is going back to work, because it’s generally done indoors. Most places, it’s done without masks. And it’s something that you do eight hours a day, five days a week, and it has the potential to really create a huge spike in cases of Covid if we stop working remotely and start congregating in offices again.
There was an interesting study that came out, talking about the economic impact of the coronavirus, and noting that the people who are hardest hit by this are poor people, whose jobs very seldom allow them to work from home, and particularly poor people who work in rich neighborhoods, because the rich people are able to isolate, are taking this disease seriously, and not going out to the places they would have been going out to. And so the much poorer people who work in those places are economically very badly hit.
JJ: Finally, I incline toward the skeptical, but I balked at the New York Times interactive feature that they had up on June 25; not the content of the feature itself, but the headline, “How the Virus Won.” There’s certainly been a tragedy of missed opportunities, but it can’t be that there’s nothing we can do now, or that media could do now?
JN: There is this assumption that, as Ned Flanders’ parents said, “We’ve tried nothing, and we’re all out of ideas.” The decision to not have a serious national strategy to combat the coronavirus, that was a choice. We decided that we were not going to do what it took to actually stop it, and instead, try to mitigate the spread of it, slow down the spread of it so it doesn’t overwhelm our healthcare system.
If you don’t stop the virus, it will eventually spread to virtually the entire population. People think that 70, 80% of people will get infected. The disease has something like a 0.5 to 1% fatality rate. When you do the math, you are talking about millions of people, in the United States alone, dying from the coronavirus. That is the implication of a strategy that does not try to stop the virus. And I think we’ve never had an actual conversation about whether a seven-figure death toll is something that we’re willing to accept or not.
JJ: We’ve been speaking with Jim Naureckas, he’s the editor at FAIR.org. Jim Naureckas, thank you so much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.
JN: Thanks for having me on.