Public health experts warn Trump's history of lying about crises is a 'real problem' as he downplays coronavirus and contradicts the CDC

FILE PHOTO: U.S.  President Donald Trump hosts a
  • President Donald Trump's history of lying about crises could be a huge problem as his administration responds to the spread of coronavirus.
  • "Overall, his reputation for telling untruths and exaggerating truths is very harmful when he has to advise a frightened public during a major outbreak," a public health expert at Georgetown told Insider. 
  • As the CDC has warned the spread of coronavirus in the US is inevitable and warned about its potential severity, Trump has downplayed the threat while focusing on the stock market. 
  • On a scale of one to 10, one expert at Harvard gave the US a five in terms of preparedness for coronavirus, and told Insider said the Trump administration gets a "D" in messaging for "confusing the public."
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

President Donald Trump has documented record of lying or embellishing when it comes to crises that affect public safety, and this could pose major risks to Americans as his administration responds to the growing threat of coronavirus, public health experts warn. 

"President Trump has a history of hyping up panic, like he did by calling for a travel ban during the West African epidemic. Or he can give a sense of false assurance like saying China and the US have [coronavirus] totally under control," Lawrence Gostin, a global health law professor at Georgetown University who has advised the World Health Organization on pandemic preparedness, told Insider.

"Overall, his reputation for telling untruths and exaggerating truths is very harmful when he has to advise a frightened public during a major outbreak," Gostin added.

Gostin said there have already been "highly conflicting messages from the Trump administration," with the president stating that coronavirus was "under control" but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stating that it's likely to "spread widely" in the US. 

 

The CDC's warning came amid new outbreaks in Iran, Italy, and South Korea that have raised fears of a global pandemic. 

"It's not so much a question of if this will happen anymore but rather more a question of exactly when this will happen and how many people in this country will have severe illness," Dr. Nancy Messonnier, the director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases at the CDC, said during a media briefing on Tuesday.

'A large proportion of the US public does not view the president as a credible messenger'

Trump in the past has made numerous false statements about various crises. Trump, for example, in April falsely tweeted that Puerto Rico got $91 billion in assistance after Hurricane Maria as he complained about the cost of the recovery effort. And in September, Trump appeared to use a black Sharpie to doctor a map on the trajectory of Hurricane Dorian to bolster his false claims about where it would strike in the US

Polls have repeatedly shown that a majority of Americans view Trump as dishonest and untrustworthy, and this presents a major problem when facing a potential global pandemic.  

"The fact that a large proportion of the US public does not view the president as a credible messenger is a real problem," Jeremy Konyndyk, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development who oversaw the Obama administration's response to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa as director for foreign disaster assistance at USAID, told Insider. 

"He has undermined his credibility through...Sharpiegate, through some of the things he said about Puerto Rico and the Hurricane Maria response," Konyndyk added. "The more the president puts his fingerprints on the messaging and the public perception on this, that is probably counterproductive." 

Konyndyk went on to say that Trump's tendency to frame situations as being about him is also highly problematic as the US braces for the spread of COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the virus, which has already killed over 2,700 and infected over 80,000 worldwide. 

"The focus here should not be the president," Konyndyk said. "The focus here should not be anyone's electoral prospects. The focus should be candor and transparency about the risks and about what people need to do to protect and prepare themselves." 

Italy coronavirus lock down Florence

'He is taking...an enormous political risk'

Trump's attempts to sound positive about the potential effects of coronavirus in the US appear to be linked to concerns over its impact on the stock market, which has taken a hit amid rising anxiety about the disease.

The president is seeking reelection this year, and a strong economy is crucial to that effort. Trump frequently boasts about the financial markets along the campaign trail, taking credit for economic growth in the US. He is reportedly furious that the stock market is nosediving over coronavirus fears, and on Wednesday suggested the media was to blame by unnecessarily spreading alarm. 

"Low Ratings Fake News MSDNC (Comcast) & @CNN are doing everything possible to make the Caronavirus look as bad as possible, including panicking markets, if possible," Trump tweeted.

Trump's focus on the stock market in relation to coronavirus is a "huge concern," Konyndyk said.

The president is sending "inaccurate risk-message" by telling people "this is not a big deal...and he's doing that to keep the markets calm," he added. 

And from a "purely political perspective," Konyndyk said this is an "incredibly dumb" approach from Trump. 

"He is taking, perhaps unconsciously, an enormous political risk by trying to buy some short-term calm in the markets at the expense of accurate risk communication. That could hugely backfire on him," Konyndyk said.

'Pandemic is likely to come'

Given the consensus on the risk to the US and the world at large, public health experts are not encouraged by the Trump administration's approach to coronavirus so far, particularly in terms of the president's attempts to downplay its potential severity. 

"It's obvious that Trump is getting ahead of his skis on saying that everything is normal. Two weeks ago or so he said [coronavirus] will be gone by April because it's going to get warmer. We don't think that's happening at this point," Eric Feigl-Ding, an epidemiologist and health economist at the Harvard Chan School of Public Health, told Insider. 

"The CDC is trying to give a reality of what's likely to come and scientific experts all agree - that pandemic is likely to come," Feigl-Ding said. 

Feigl-Ding said it's especially problematic that there has been limited testing for coronavirus in the US, which is linked to faulty testing kits that were sent out by the CDC earlier this month. This hinders the government's ability to know the actual number of coronavirus cases in the US. While South Korea has run over 35,000 coronavirus tests, US has only tested about 500 people, 

In this context, Feigl-Ding said it's "irresponsible" for Trump and his allies like Larry Kudlow, director of the National Economic Council, to say they have things "under control."

 

"To say we have everything under control when you have almost no testing is really, really silly and disingenuous...It's very irresponsible to say everything is fine when we are very much in the dark about the actual epidemic status," Feigl-Ding said. 

On a scale of one to 10, Feigl-Ding gave the US a five in terms of preparedness for coronavirus, and he said the Trump administration gets a "D" in messaging for "confusing the public." But he commended the CDC for "speaking the truth" about the inevitability of the disease's spread. 

"We're behind the curve, possibly well behind the curve," Konyndyk said. "There's a big disconnect between public perception and the actual reality of the risk. The public has been hearing for a month that the risk to the US is low, that the risk to the US under control, and that the focus is on containment...What that sets up then, is a sort of whiplash effect in public perception, if and when cases begin spreading at scale." 

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