The president announced his own discharge from Walter Reed National Military Medical Center Monday afternoon, tweeting:
One phrase stood out: “Don’t be afraid of Covid.” After announcing that he will be leaving the hospital following treatment for COVID-19, President Trump said not to fear the disease that has killed more than 209,000 Americans and infected more than 7 million.
There’s a long history of the president of the United States imploring his people not to give in to fear. But in this case, Trump is giving dangerous advice.
Fear is natural in the face of the most deadly pandemic in a century. It’s also useful. Fear has motivated us to understand as much as possible about how the virus spreads, and fear can drive us to take the actions necessary to stop it. If we don’t acknowledge the legitimately frightening reality of this disease, we may not be motivated to act responsibly to reduce transmission. Willfully ignoring that fear puts everyone at risk.
Early in the pandemic, much of the fear was stoked by how little we knew. The tools at our disposal for stopping its spread were limited and blunt. We knew it was a good idea to wash your hands and not touch your face, but it quickly became apparent that those simple steps weren’t enough.
By the time states’ initial lockdowns measures were starting to ease, researchers had learned a lot more about how COVID-19 spreads. Thanks to vigorous scientific investigation, we learned that people can shed the virus before they even have symptoms. We learned that tiny, airborne particles can spread the virus just like the larger, wet droplets we already knew carry it. And we discovered that masks can help reduce the number of those virus-laden particles a person expels and inhales. We also learned the virus wasn’t as deadly as initially thought, and some modes of transmission — like surfaces — weren’t as big of a threat. We were getting a handle of what to be afraid of, and what not to be.
Armed with all of this information, public health experts were able to develop recommendations for exactly what communities and individuals can do to avoid getting and spreading the virus. Keep six feet of distance between yourself and people who don’t live in the same house as you. Wear a mask whenever you’re out in public. Wash your hands (still a good idea!) and try to limit how often you’re leaving your home. These guidelines are recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization, countless local public health organizations and, yes, the White House, too.
And the best evidence we have suggests that these simple actions work. A June study published in Nature estimated as many as 60 million COVID-19 infections were avoided thanks to social distancing and lockdown efforts. And disease modelling projects that tens of thousands of lives could be spared with widespread adoption of social distancing and mask-wearing.
The president’s message not to be afraid of the virus is dangerous if it encourages Americans to reject the things they do because they’re afraid of the virus. And that has implications for all of us. Think of the grocery store worker who has to stock shelves while dozens of strangers brush past them, or the nurse who has to come in close proximity with patients daily, many of whom may have active COVID-19 infections. Without the fear of what this disease can do to you, there’s little motivation to protect them.
It’s easier to feel secure when you’re the president of the United States, of course. But that’s not a reality the rest of us live day to day. In our reality, fear is rational, and it’s what pushes us to act. By telling us there’s nothing to fear, Trump is both ignoring the experience of millions of Americans, and giving further fuel to those whose response to fear is denial. Fear on its own isn’t useful. But neither is a dismissal of reality.