Coronavirus: misinformation and false claims in Donald Trump’s responses to pandemic

Owen Churchill

In mid-January, back when concern over US defences against the coronavirus was just another Democratic “hoax”, US President Donald Trump shrugged off the suggestion that the outbreak could ever swell into a global crisis.

“No, not at all,” he said, when asked by CNBC’s Joe Kernen whether he was concerned about the possibility of a pandemic. “It's one person coming in from China, and we have it under control. It’s going to be just fine.”

Two months later, with a US death toll surpassing 200 and a plummeting stock market, the president’s tone has changed. He always knew it would be a pandemic, he said this week. In fact, he “felt it was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic”.

But while Trump has in recent days appeared to treat the subject with increased solemnity, his trademark disregard for detail – ranging from exaggerations to outright lies – has continued. The South China Morning Post reviewed some of the false claims Trump has made over the past week while addressing the pandemic and his administration’s response to it.

Claim: FDA approved malaria drug for coronavirus application 

At a Thursday briefing touting the relaxation of pharmaceutical regulations, Trump said incorrectly that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) had expeditiously approved chloroquine – a drug for malaria – for treatment of patients with Covid-19.

“Normally the FDA would take a long time to approve something like that, and it was approved very, very quickly and it's now approved, by prescription,” he said.

The remarks prompted the FDA to issue a clarification soon after the briefing, emphasising there was currently “no FDA-approved therapeutics or drugs to treat, cure or prevent Covid-19”.

Chloroquine has been approved for use against malaria, and as such could be prescribed by health care providers in coronavirus cases “off-label” – when FDA-sanctioned drugs are prescribed for other, unapproved purposes. But clinical trials still need to be carried out before it can be officially deployed as an FDA-approved treatment for Covid-19.

The agency “must ensure these products are effective”, FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn said. “Otherwise we risk treating patients with a product that might not work when they could have pursued other, more appropriate, treatments.”

Trump looks on as Stephen Hahn, commissioner of the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), takes questions Thursday at a coronavirus briefing in the White House. Photo: Abaca Press, via Bloomberg

No matter. Trump continued to claim the drug was approved for treatment of the coronavirus even after the FDA’s clarification, stating during a teleconference with governors later on Thursday that Hahn had “got it approved very quickly.

“I won’t even tell you how quickly, but let’s put it this way: It’s approved.”

Citing government officials in Nigeria, AFP reported on Friday that Trump’s comments had caused a surge of interest in the drug in Lagos and that hospitals had begun to see cases of chloroquine poisoning.

Claim: Asian-Americans support his use of “Chinese virus”

Under growing criticism that his language risks encouraging racist attacks against those of Chinese and East Asian descent, Trump said on Thursday that Asian-Americans would agree “100 per cent” with his calling the coronavirus the “Chinese virus”.

That claim flies in the face of the growing chorus of condemnation of such language from within the Asian-American community, including lawmakers, community groups, professional associations and high-profile figures.

Trump and others who insist on prefacing the disease with “Chinese” say they do so to highlight the geographic origins of the outbreak. The White House justified the term earlier this week by pointing to nomenclature for previous outbreaks, like the “Spanish flu” of 100 years ago.

Officials from the World Health Organisation, which changed its naming process in 2015 specifically to avoid stigmatising regions where outbreaks occur or natives of that region, condemned the use of such language.

The debate over intent has done little to assuage the fears of those who say they face the potentially violent impact of ethnocentric language.

“I dont wanna hear about no German measles/Spanish flu [because] everyday Asian-Americans [including people] I know are threatened and physically attacked,” Jeremy Lin, the professional basketball player, said on Twitter. “I dont give a crap about the history of names [right now]. What I do know is this subtle anti-Chinese message only empowers more hate towards asians.”

WHO official denounces stigmatising language like that Trump uses

In response to Trump’s continued usage of the term “Chinese virus”, Representative Grace Meng, Democrat of New York, launched a petition demanding that the president apologise for the language.

Trump “doesn't get to decide what is and isn't racist”, she said on Twitter Thursday. “He needs to listen to [Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders] when we tell him that the term “Chinese virus” is hateful and wrong, and he needs to apologize.”

Claim: China paying the US “billions of dollars” in tariffs

Trump aired his familiar but repeatedly refuted claim on Wednesday that the US treasury was receiving “billions of dollars” in tariffs revenue from China when asked whether he would consider relaxing the duties because of the pandemic’s crippling impact on the world economy.

“China hasn't asked me to [reduce the tariffs], but we're getting billions of dollars a year from tariffs from China,” he said. “And I can't imagine Americans asking for that, but it could be that China will ask for a suspension or something. We'll see what happens.”

Numerous studies by leading economists have confirmed that tariffs applied to Chinese goods over the course of the trade war have largely been paid by importers who then suffer narrowed profit margins – or by US consumers in the form of higher prices.

“US tariffs continue to be almost entirely borne by US firms and consumers,” researchers stated in a January paper published in the National Bureau of Economic Research. The analysis, based on data leading up to October, found that “approximately 100 per cent” of tariff costs fell on US buyers, The New York Times reported.

Claim: Nobody in the US saw this coming

Trump continued this week to portray the impact of the outbreak – which threatens to leave a lasting stain on his presidency – as entirely unforeseen, as he has faced criticism over shortcomings in his administration’s preparedness.

“Nobody knew there’d be a pandemic or an epidemic of this proportion,” he said on Thursday. “Nobody has ever seen anything like this before.”

In fact, the administration has been made aware numerous times that the country’s defences against a pandemic-type crisis are lacking, both from studies by experts and briefings from the government’s own staff.

The Worldwide Threat Assessment of 2019, an annual report issued by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, warned the administration that the US would “remain vulnerable to the next flu pandemic or large-scale outbreak of a contagious disease that could lead to massive rates of death and disability”.

This year’s report contains similar warnings but has been prevented from being released by the administration for unknown reasons, Time magazine reported earlier this month, citing two government officials.

“We have known in the US government for decades – but certainly in recent years – that we were due for another global pandemic,” Susan Rice, the national security adviser in the Obama administraion, said on Thursday.

Former national security adviser Susan Rice, shown in 2016, rebutted Trump’s claim that a pandemic was unexpected: “We have known in the US government for decades – but certainly in recent years – that we were due for another global pandemic,” she told CNN. Photo: AP

Speaking on CNN, Rice said the pandemic threat was a key component of her transitional briefings with her successor in the Trump administration, Michael Flynn.

“When you have the president of the United States stand up almost daily and say: ‘Who could have imagined this, who could have predicted this, we had no idea this could come,’ well that’s just false,” she said.

Trump this week awarded himself a “10" – full marks – for his response to the coronavirus outbreak, despite mounting criticism that he undercut the administration's own preparedness when he disbanded the National Security Council's pandemic response unit in 2018.

His recent claim that he knew nothing about the unit's dismissal was undermined this week with the emergence of video footage from 2018 showing Trump justifying it as an economic move. “I'm a businessperson,” he said.

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