MCKAY COPPINS People's lives are going to be disrupted on a daily basis, and as that happens, the alternate reality he's created is inevitably going to implode.
BROOKE GLADSTONE The president sought to defeat the narrative of COVID-19 with his usual tactic of ”censorship noise, “ but the virus is proving resistant. From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD And I’m Bob Garfield. Italy has become the number one infection hotspot, pointing the way to the future of containment and maybe politics, too.
RACHEL DONADIO Yes, if the far right message is Italians first, and then Italians have become pariahs because of the virus spreading there, it kind of upends their rhetoric.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And revisiting the once and future paradigm of films about pandemics.
WESLEY MORRIS I felt that I was watching no longer like a very entertaining worst case scenario, but I think that it's happening all over the world right now.
BOB GARFIELD It's all coming up after this. From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And I'm Brooke Gladstone. Moments before tip off on Wednesday evening's game between the Utah Jazz and Oklahoma City Thunder, the NBA scrambled to act on news that Jazz star Rudy Gober had contracted COVID-19.
NEWS REPORT Utah is no longer on the floor. The Thunder are no longer on its bench. The officials have gone back to the locker room. The fans here in the arena don't know what's going on. We don't know what's going on.
You are all safe. Take your time in leaving the arena tonight and do so in an orderly fashion. Thank you for coming out tonight. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE For now, no more TV studio audiences in New York and L.A., no more Broadway, sports officials suspended all upcoming professional hockey, baseball and basketball events, no March Madness and Disneyland closed. On Thursday, the president said this:
PRESIDENT TRUMP It’s going to go away. It's going to go away. I was watching Scott this morning. And he was saying within two months. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE And this.
PRESIDENT TRUMP I mean, think of it, the United States, because of what I did and what the administration did with China. We have 32 deaths at this point. 32 is a lot, but when you look at the kind of numbers that you're seeing coming out of other countries, it's pretty amazing when you think of it. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE And especially this:
PRESIDENT TRUMP Over the next few days, you're gonna have four million tests and frankly, the testing has been going very smooth. If you go to the right agency, if you go to the right area, you get the test. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE If only. South Korea, which discovered its first COVID-19 patient around the same time as the U.S. is testing 10,000 people a day, roughly the same number of people tested in the U.S. total since mid-January. And if we don't know who has the virus, experts say, we can't contain its spread, putting more Americans at risk. On Wednesday, Politico reporter Dan Diamond told Terry Gross that the White House rejected offers from the W.H.O. to share the science behind its tests, saying that America would develop its own tests.
DAN DIAMOND The World Health Organization did have a working test. Someone somewhere made the decision that the U.S. was going to go its own way, and that started a chain reaction of not having a working test and then having these delays for weeks.
BROOKE GLADSTONE There are widespread reports of tests delayed and denied because of shortages of kits and personnel, also accounts by unnamed sources close to the president that he resisted offers by domestic labs to produce the tests because he didn't like the “optics of national emergency” that steeply rising numbers would imply. But the stock market surged when he finally did declare a national emergency Friday. According to McKay Coppins, staff writer at The Atlantic, when the president delivered his national address on Wednesday, a prepared speech from a monitor in a tone that seemed appropriately grave, it was a new turn in his propa - I mean, public information campaign.
PRESIDENT TRUMP We declared a public health emergency and issued the highest level of travel warning on other countries as the virus spread its horrible infection. [END CLIP]
MCKAY COPPINS Yeah, I would say it was a 180 degree pivot, at least in tone from the way he had been talking about Coronavirus. In the past several weeks, every time he talked about it or tweeted about it, it was with a kind of calculated, cavalierness. “This is no big deal. It's no worse than the flu.” And the criticism of his administration's handling of it was a hoax or an effort to destroy his presidency. I think that speech on Wednesday night was the first time that we saw him talk about the global pandemic with the gravity that most public health officials wanted to see from him weeks ago.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Kind of Trumpian gravity. He was using that tone that he assumes when he's being, quote, you know, presidential, somber and sleepy. It has a kind of rhythmic wine. Da da da da da da da da da da da. It's like he's trying to hypnotize you. Maybe it was a pivot, but it wasn't materially. You know, Politico has observed he's still reluctant to make a declaration of national emergency because that wouldn't fit into his narrative that this is going to go away by itself and it's not different from the seasonal flu.
MCKAY COPPINS From the very beginning, he seemed to handle it in a way that we've seen him handle a lot of other political battles in his presidency, which is that he thought that if he could control the conservative media's treatment of the story, he would be able to keep the political damage to a minimum. Where he miscalculated there is that the public health crisis that we're seeing unfold right now is fundamentally different than a lot of the other episodes of his presidency and that eventually reality will assert itself. Right? It's clearly spreading in the United States. The only real course of action for a president is to have a competent public health response. And so far, his actions have left a lot to be desired.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You talk about what you called Trump's alternate reality, where he fills the air with information that is false or mostly false or inconsistent. The point is not to even create a narrative, but to exhaust anybody who wants clarity and induce them to throw up their hands?
MCKAY COPPINS That's right. Scholars who study this stuff actually have a name for it; they call it censorship through noise. And the goal really isn't to necessarily make people have conviction in a certain set of facts. The goal is to make it so that people throw up their hands and just side with their political tribe. I watched the president's speech on Wednesday night on Fox News so that I could kind of see what the reaction would be right after the speech. And what was amazing to me was how quickly and seamlessly the entire messaging apparatus pivoted up until literally like hours before the president's speech you had Sean Hannity on his radio show musing about how the Coronavirus threat was possibly a deep state conspiracy to harm the president.
SEAN HANNITY On immune systems, he said, “Coronavirus fear mongering by the deep state will go down in history as one of the biggest frauds to manipulate economies, suppress dissent and push mandated medicines,” may be true. [END CLIP]
MCKAY COPPINS And then you had the president give this speech where he acknowledged that it's a serious issue and it needs to be addressed. All of a sudden, you had Sean Hannity talking about the serious pandemic and this president has taken decisive, aggressive action from the beginning.
SEAN HANNITY Now, from day one, this president took aggressive and even unprecedented steps to prevent the spread and mitigate the impact of what is now a global pandemic. Make no mistakes in serious situations, truth matters, facts matter, and unfortunately, there's been way too much politicizing of this, too much, well, untruths being told and actually even some actually weaponizing what is a global pandemic that all needs to stop. I hope it will. [END CLIP]
MCKAY COPPINS I mean, frankly, I think Orwellian has become a cliched phrase in the Trump era. But honestly, this was as close to Orwellian as I had ever seen. And what it showed me was that what's going to happen in the days and weeks to come is that you're going to have this concerted effort by the same media apparatus that has been carrying Trump's narrative for the last few weeks, now make every effort possible to conceal that that ever happened.
BROOKE GLADSTONE But they can't do that because we still don't have test kits. It's still spreading, and you can blame it on Europeans or as some of the Republican Party have done, blame it on the coastal states of California and New York, and he still won't have contained it.
MCKAY COPPINS The pivot that I'm looking for next in the conservative media is that you're going to start finding scapegoats, whether that's liberal politicians or governors on the coastal states, whether that's immigrants or China, so that the president doesn't incur political damage among his base.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And also damage to the narrative that America first is the only way to solve any problem.
MCKAY COPPINS And you saw it with his speech, tried the very first and most dramatic announcement he made was that he was implementing a month long travel ban from Europe. As long as we can build walls and shut down borders, you know, then we can stay safe. I don't think that's the most important thing that's happening right now, but I do think that the entire project of the Trump presidency has been keeping a certain segment of the country inside this reality that he's created. And I think that that's under threat in a way that it never has been before.
BROOKE GLADSTONE There was another interesting case prior to this speech where Tucker Carlson, without naming names, suggested that perhaps the leaders ought to be taking this more seriously?
TUCKER CARLSON People you trust, people you probably voted for, have spent weeks minimizing what is clearly a very serious problem. It's just partisan politics. They say calm down. In the end, this is just like the flu and people die from that every year. Coronavirus will pass. When it does, we will feel foolish for worrying about it. That's their position, but they're wrong. [END CLIP]
MCKAY COPPINS Yeah, Tucker Carlson was really interesting. He was actually, for a while, kind of the lonely dissenting voice in the Fox News primetime lineup, making the case that this should be treated as an emergency. It was really kind of an amazing moment where you saw this, you know, right wing Fox News host pleading with the president to take this seriously. I don't know if that is, you know, the difference maker, but he clearly knows that the president watches and there was at least one voice in this broader conservative media apparatus trying to get the president's attention.
BROOKE GLADSTONE What about the coverage on the other cable news channel, CNN, MSNBC? Do you have any observations about them or were they both kind of true to form?
MCKAY COPPINS Well, I think, you know, for the most part, they were trying to inform the public about this growing public health crisis and warn about what was happening in other countries and how it could happen here. I do think, though, that, you know, if there's one critique you could make of the mainstream media, it's that for the last several years we have been dialed up to 10. Right? We've been covering every, you know, episode of the Trump presidency, every scandal, every moment with a sense of urgency. And I think that that makes sense, given how, you know, strange and extraordinary the last several years have been. But I do think that it comes at a cost, which is that when a global pandemic happens and we really need to get viewers attention or our audiences attention and communicate that this is really urgent. I do think there's a certain number of people who are not inside the kind of Trump MAGA bubble, but still who have started to tune out media coverage because they say, well, they treat everything like it's a catastrophe. And, you know, usually things end up being fine.
BROOKE GLADSTONE I think that is true. It's exhausting watching the news. I also think it's infuriating because not only is everything dialed up to ten or eleven, but it's put through a political filter. Either the filter of politics or on specialized channels, the filter of the market.
MCKAY COPPINS Part of what's happened is that the people who have remained plugged into the news after years of kind of exhausting political drama are the political junkies. And I do think that there is commercial incentive or an audience incentive happening here where everybody is playing to the people who watch cable news every day instead of necessarily trying to, you know, inform the broader public.
BROOKE GLADSTONE A Quinnipiac poll released this week found that 68 percent of Democrats are concerned about the virus, about 35 percent of Republicans were. Does that sound like a public health crisis in the making?
MCKAY COPPINS Yeah. This is, I think, one of the most concerning results of the president's messaging, which is that they listen, to the president, they listen to Fox News, they listen to Rush Limbaugh and Mark Levin and the talk radio world and when they're all saying in unison this is no big deal, this is no big deal, the media is creating a hysteria to hurt the president, don't let them win, when that's the message that's being beaten into them every single day, they naturally don't take the public health ramifications seriously. They don't think about, you know, canceling vacations or canceling travel or avoiding large gatherings or even washing their hands. Right. And so this is one hopefully positive byproduct of the president now starting to change his tone is that this will mean that the president's supporters will start to take him more seriously. But I think, you know, at this point, there's a good chance that the damage has already been done. Sorry, that was a very on-message cough.
BROOKE GLADSTONE McKay Coppins is a staff writer at The Atlantic and author of The Wilderness, a book about the battle over the future of the Republican Party.
BOB GARFIELD Coming up on the meaning of masks, east and west.
BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On the Media.
This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD And I'm Bob Garfield. This week, neighbors quarantined in the ancient city of Siena leaned out of the windows across empty streets to join each other in song. So irresistibly old world. But in the context of the virus, says Rachel Donadio, who covers Europe for The Atlantic. Italy offers more than a charming YouTube clip. It offers the rest of the world a glimpse of its future.
NEWS REPORT Italy has emerged as a serious hotspot.
NEWS REPORT Italy quarantined the Lombardy region, essentially putting close to 17 million people on lockdown.
NEWS REPORT Despite the tough tactics, the virus is still spreading. Italy has nearly 12,500 cases, the second most after China. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD As the death toll there surpasses 1,000, the government moved from a partial quarantine in the country's northern region to a complete shutdown on movement throughout the country. 60 million residents are to leave their homes only for the absolute essentials. And travel is permitted only by written exemption. Schools are shut down. Public activity is on a daylight curfew. As of Thursday, no other European country had taken such drastic measures. Writing in The Atlantic on Sunday, Donadio noted members of the public under quarantine are receiving life or death. Breaking news from a notoriously chaotic press. Rachel, welcome to the show.
RACHEL DONADIO Thanks for having me.
BOB GARFIELD Like other countries, Italy has sent out mixed messages. Once the novel coronavirus started appearing first, it was beware. And then it was okay not too ware. And then no, really BE-ware. What effect did this lack of consistency have?
RACHEL DONADIO It's true that at first that the government messaging was to be concerned. And then there was this movement when the virus started spreading in towns outside Milan that Milan wouldn't shut down, that Milan doesn't stop. And let's all go and have an aperitivo as we normally do, and even a major political leader. On February 27, the head of the Center-Left left Democratic Party went to Milan and drank an aperitivo and said Milan doesn't stop. And then last Saturday, he announced that he'd come down with the virus. And it was that evening that the whole country was put on this lockdown measures. So I think that it's been an emotional roller coaster.
BOB GARFIELD One of the signals came from the media who said, watch out. The government's fixing to lock you in to northern Italy and not let anyone in or out. What happened then?
RACHEL DONADIO That's right. On Saturday evening, around dinner time, Italian time, so around 8 o'clock or so, a draft bill was leaked to the press that indeed said northern Italy is going on lockdown. And it was so unclear what the actual terms of this dramatic lockdown would be that thousands of people flocked to the train station and to the airport and headed south. So the whole point of these measures that were, in fact, put in place is that you need to practice social distancing. You need to keep away from other people. So cramming on virus-filled trains to the south was not exactly a great public health move. And it was because of that leaked to the press that there were these hours of confusion. And in fact, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte didn't make an official statement until a press conference at 2:00 in the morning. Things are fairly chaotic in the Italian media in the best of times.
BOB GARFIELD You mentioned news organizations leaking that draft legislation about the lockdown in the north, which triggered the panic we discussed. Is it fair to say that the Italian news media have less than sterling reputation for, let's say, equanimity, highly partisan, addicted to drama, cozy with politicians, sometimes a little thin on accuracy in context?
RACHEL DONADIO The Italian media has always had a complicated, cozy relationship with the Italian political establishment. And that was the case when there were more establishment parties, when there were the communists, the socialists, the Christian Democrats. They each had their own channel on Italian state television and different business interests have different newspapers. Now, I think that what we're seeing in Italy is what we're seeing everywhere. And it's just that Italy is doing it first, which is whatever problems or short circuit you have between politics and the media in any country is amplified and all the more dangerous when you have a public health crisis and when the release of information is actually something that affects human lives.
BOB GARFIELD The push and pull in the media reflects a similar push and pull in the central politics of the country, which are pretty wild. It's very hard to coalesce and maintain a coalition to just even to have a government there. But I wonder if there's any signs that these fractious impulses have been chastened by this crisis? Or as the death toll mounts, will it be all scare headlines and political spin and accusations and politics all the time?
RACHEL DONADIO In Italy, information comes out and is leaked and it arrives from every possible direction and everybody has a different source in a different branch of the government. There's not centralized release of information the way there is in France, where President Macron will make a statement or the French health minister will make a statement before Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte in Italy gave a press conference announcing that these restrictive measures would extend to the entire country and not just the north, one of the leading politicians had already leaked that to a wire service, so it already came out before the prime minister spoke. But there's something kind of paradoxical about Italy. There's one of the former presidents of Italy, Cossiga, an interesting character once said that Italians are incapable of keeping secrets. And so there's something about this anarchic release of information from all sides that winds up being weirdly more transparent than centralized release of information from governments. I mean, governments can lie how as much as they want, you know, the numbers in a case like a public health crisis don't lie, but governments can lie about that. But if the information is just coming out in every possible direction, then, you know, you do have some material to go on.
BOB GARFIELD One odd twist is the effect of the rhetoric worldwide on Italy's far right parties and nativist elements. The xenophobes suddenly are cast in the role of the xenos that the rest of the world is phobic about. That can't sit well.
RACHEL DONADIO Yes. If the far right messages Italians first and then Italians have become pariahs because of the virus spreading there, it kind of upends their rhetoric. At the same time, these far right parties happen to control the regions of the north that have been hardest hit by this virus. And they've been using this crisis as an opportunity to criticize how the government has been handling things. So there's still politics as usual, tug of war between the northern regions and the central government. In the long term, if Europe doesn't come to help Italy, it will just embolden the far right and they'll say we're getting more help from the Chinese who donated respirators than we are from Brussels. If that becomes the line, then the far right populist, the anti Europe populists are going to be back with a huge vengeance.
BOB GARFIELD What all of the West faces, unlike China or say, North Korea, where COVID- 19 seems to be wreaking havoc, is the need to balance public health and civil liberties. Not to mention the need to stave off economic disaster, which is not a trivial concern. China finally swooped in and used its police power to apparently freeze the virus in Sitchu, if the reports are true and is seeing results, which is easy relatively for a police state, but for democracy, not so much. What do you suppose will be the balance in Europe and points west?
RACHEL DONADIO I think that it will just be this really tricky balancing act between what kind of information governments need to give so that people stay informed and healthy to prevent this pandemic from getting worse and what kinds of information just actually provoke panic. I mean, there's also a certain sense of social responsibility, individual and collective human responsibility and, you know, some cultures need the state to say, here's what you have to do. And other cultures, including many Western democracies, have a kind of community fabric where I think people will just recognize that this is the right thing to do. I mean, if you get the message from your government that if you are in contact with other people and an old person gets sick because you're carrying the virus, then, you know, shame might be as powerful as a government response.
BOB GARFIELD Rachel, thank you very much. Oh, and go wash your hands.
RACHEL DONADIO Absolutely. I'll do that as soon as we're done. Thank you so much for having me.
BOB GARFIELD Rachel Donadio covers politics and culture across Europe for The Atlantic.
BROOKE GLADSTONE As the coronavirus brings government readiness and the spread of not just infection, but also virulent fake news into focus, we take our lens to Ukraine, where as of Thursday, the country had three confirmed cases. In February, Novi Sanzhary, a sleepy town of 8300 people about 210 miles east of the capital Kiev, was torn apart by the virus before any cases were even found. In one night, 24 people were arrested for rioting and nine police officers were injured. Christopher Miller, who covers Eastern Europe for BuzzFeed News, described how a toxic mix of misinformation and fear ravaged the town. The story begins in mid-February, when the government announced that 45 Ukrainians and 27 foreign nationals were being evacuated from Wuhan, China and were en route back to Ukraine.
CHRISTOPHER MILLER Ukrainians are wondering, you know, are these people sick? Have they been tested? Will they be quarantined? Are they just going to arrive here in the capital Kiev, and then be allowed to go home? The government wasn't being very forthcoming with this information. And that, of course, allowed for rumors to spread on social media. As the plane got closer, the government didn't say whether it was going to land here in the capital Kiev, and whether or not any of them had been sick with the virus before boarding this plane. So it was late February 18th, social media started buzzing with rumors of these people possibly being infected. And it carried over into February 19th when the plane and the governor had finally come out and said the plane is going to land in the city outside of the capital and all of these people have been tested, none of them are ill and we're going to take all of them to this tiny little town called Novi Sanzhary, which nobody really here at that time had heard of. And they're going to be quarantined for 14 days.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Did the Ukrainians of Novi Sanzhary have any reason to distrust the government?
CHRISTOPHER MILLER There has historically been distrust in the authorities dating back decades. Right. A very good example of that is the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster. Ever since then, there has been distrust in authorities. The local mayor told me when you're not told everything that you need answers to, you're going to be fearful. And we feared for our lives. This feeling like death was knocking at the door of this tiny little town.
BROOKE GLADSTONE They were asking the government why here? There are better hospitals, better facilities.
CHRISTOPHER MILLER The prime minister himself told them we didn't want a place that was largely populated and that was buzzing with people. And of course, that only stirred more panic. In the absence of good information, a lot of people were filling this void, creating their own bad information and not with necessarily a malicious intent. So there was one group that was created by the townspeople of Novi Sanzhary. to communicate with friends and neighbors, Facebook groups and private messenger chat rooms. They were communicating over Instagram and direct messaging each other. These were people communicating with people who they knew. But the media started picking up on what was being discussed in these groups but there's not a whole lot of like verification that's done. Media tends to copy paste news briefs from other sites and to post them to theirs.
BROOKE GLADSTONE I asked you if the citizens of Novi Sanzhary had reason to distrust their government. How about their media?
CHRISTOPHER MILLER A majority of Ukrainians consume their news via television, and all of these television stations are owned by various powerful business people who use these television stations to smear opponents. And then meanwhile, journalists had managed to find their way into these groups, interviewing locals, citing them as experts and these ideas and rumors spread further and further until you had other cities also rising up and protesting in the way that this town of Novi Sanzhary did.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Describe what it became. What did you see?
CHRISTOPHER MILLER What everybody told me was that it was late at night on February 19th, and everybody's phone started buzzing. I sort of think of it as an Amber Alert that we might get in the U.S. when a child is abducted or there is a weather emergency. People describe it like that. Their phones were ringing off the hook there, their messaging apps were beeping. The town mayor heard from one of her constituents first and they pointed her to this Viber group and there had been 5,000 or so messages that she hadn't read. And it was absolute chaos and panic. People had already begun organizing groups to come out to the streets. There was nothing at that point that she could do. They had already made up their mind that these people were being brought to their town, were sick, and that the only thing they could do was to protest and to keep them from coming here. We know some of the messages were things like if we go to bed tonight, we're not going to wake up tomorrow morning. They set up lookouts on the corners entering the city. They blocked the entrance of the medical facility where these people were meant to be brought. And when police showed up in large numbers and not only police, but also the National Guardsmen wearing masks and carrying arms and marching in unison down the street with armored vehicles at their sides, they thought for sure that these people are sick. They're bringing sick people to town.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Did people die in this confrontation?
CHRISTOPHER MILLER Nobody died. But nine police officers were wounded and at least five of them somewhat severely. There were 24 locals arrested. When I arrived at the town, I was shown by a lot of people who participated in the protests, videos and photographs. The videos showed police shouting down protesters, protesters shouting at the police, shouting at the people who were being brought in by bus to get out, to go back to China, some women threw stones and shattered the windows of the buses carrying the evacuees. There was tear gas used by the police and pepper spray. And there were people in the crowd that were using a pepper spray themselves on the police. It was total chaos. And the town described it as a war zone. The president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, described the scene as something from medieval Europe that, as you can imagine, wasn't taken very well by many of the townspeople there who even when I visited a couple of weeks later to see President Zelensky greet the evacuees after their 14 days of quarantine, people were still very, very angry about that and really wanted some sort of apology from the president, which never came.
BROOKE GLADSTONE I understand how frightened townspeople will rush to fill a void in information with their worst nightmares, but they didn't do this entirely by themselves. There seems to have been some deliberately seeded rumors about it. You suggest in the subsequent reporting that it came from a foreign source.
CHRISTOPHER MILLER Sort of right in the middle of all of this with protests already underway, there is this mysterious email that goes out to hundreds, if not thousands of contacts from the Ministry of Health here. This email included information that said five people had been infected with the coronavirus and they were among the group of evacuees being brought back from China. And the email looks authentic. It has an email address that is assigned to the Ministry of Health. It has the logo of the Ministry of Health. The language is Ukrainian and it sounds very professionally written. It was picked up and written about in the media, except that it was a fake email and found by the security services to have been sent by someone else or a group of people using what the security services here described as a foreign email service. For instance, a group of Russian hackers who have targeted Ukraine on several occasions asked or possibly political opponents of the current government trying to make things more difficult for them. And whoever sent this email out tried to make it look authentic in an attempt to stoke fear and panic and call on people to go out to the streets to protect themselves and protect their loved ones.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Tell me who the government used as proxies to help tell people about the coronavirus, the risks and the behavior it required to contain it.
CHRISTOPHER MILLER Well, after the riots, the government did send the prime minister and its interior minister and its health minister out and all three of these officials did meet and speak with townspeople and certainly did their best to explain that these evacuees who had arrived were not sick and they had been tested and they would be in quarantine just as a preventative measure. The health minister did actually quarantine herself to show to the townspeople and Ukrainians, even beyond Novi Sanzhary, that there was nothing to fear of the evacuees quarantined there. She stayed with them and was released only when they were, but they also tapped celebrities to help them. And one in particular is someone I would describe as Ukraine's Dr. Phil right down to the mustache. He has a large social media following nearly 2 million subscribers on YouTube. And so he in a video, announces that he is driving to Novi Sanzhary a couple days after these riots to help calm the mood and he meets with the townspeople, he strolls through town, he does some meetings in believe, one of the town's cultural centers. And his message is, look, you've been given some bad information. You've shared some bad information. Here is what you need to know. And after that, it does seem as though things in the town calmed down a bit.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So aside from apologizing, what do you think the president and the health ministry should have done?
CHRISTOPHER MILLER You know, the person who told me, I think most concisely, was Novi Sanzhary’s mayor. And she said simply tell the truth. You know, the lessons for the government here really are. Keep your messaging clear. Be transparent. Engage with the media instead of flouting it. This presidential administration and government prefers to put out its own propaganda on social media. And there are lessons for the media as well. Better fact checking, tracking down the original source. A lot of what we saw here was the media picking up messages in these social media groups that were coming from locals, not from doctors, not from medical health experts, not from the government, and turning them into news stories. And then also, of course, interviewing experts, not politicians. The talking heads on television were not medical health experts, they were politicians who have an ax to grind with the current government or were members of the current government. They weren't people who were telling the citizenry here how to keep themselves safe, which everybody in the town told me would have gone a long way in calming their nerves. And of course, you know, I'm observing from afar, but looking at my home country, all of the things that led to violence on the streets of this tiny little town in Ukraine exist also in the United States. The tools used to mobilize people. It was Facebook. It was Instagram. It was Viber. It was word of mouth. A lot of what we've seen in Ukraine, in the US are politicians doing the talking. And what the public needs to know right now is fact based information that can keep everybody healthy and safe.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Thank you very much.
CHRISTOPHER MILLER Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Christopher Miller covers Eastern Europe for BuzzFeed News.
BOB GARFIELD For tens of thousands of years, humans have used masks as religious totems, war regalia and war trophies, folk celebrations, sports sex play, shaming punishments and of course, armed robbery. And here we are again. The image is so familiar. Asian travelers and pedestrians masked routinely to ward off contagious disease. In the Far East, the practice is commonplace. And amid Corona-pocalypse, also now here. Gideon Lasco is a physician and medical anthropologist at the University of Philippines Diliman. He wrote recently in sapiens.org about the symbolism of facemasks. Gideon, welcome to the show.
GIDEON LASCO Thank you for inviting me.
BOB GARFIELD The image is now familiar. And subways on streets, in airports. Do they even do any good?
GIDEON LASCO Face masks actually have very limited value for the general public. And it's only recommended for people who are health care practitioners, or people who are actually sick.
BOB GARFIELD What you've done in your piece is look at the many layers of history and culture that have informed public behavior in the midst of the Coronavirus epidemic. And a lot of it has to do with social mores.
GIDEON LASCO Yes. So in a country where people value conformity and compliance to rules, then wearing a mask can signify obedience to public authority, it can signify being a hygienic citizen.
BOB GARFIELD Just the social compact of protecting others from you, as well as protect you from others.
GIDEON LASCO It's communicating to people that you're a responsible citizen. At the same time, we also see how masks at the personal level somehow tell you that you're doing something instead of just doing nothing in the face of this outbreak. One historian who wrote about the history of face masks in Japan used the notion of a risk ritual to make sense of the appeal of masks among the Japanese. So just like the many rituals we do before an exam, a ritual before a big event, wearing a mask can be interpreted as a form of risk ritual to give us the sense of control in the face of this coronavirus.
BOB GARFIELD But they significantly hide the identity of the mask wearer. And you believe that that is part of the mentality?
GIDEON LASCO Yes. If we look at how masks have become popular in Japan, part of the appeal of masks in everyday life, not just during epidemics, but in regular days for many people it's a way of hiding themselves, avoiding being bothered by other people. So in that sense, masks serve as a very physical barrier and also a social barrier. And what it does now in this type of coronavirus, it really marks people as either at risk or concerned about that risk.
BOB GARFIELD Well, that's a paradox. It both marks them, but also offers them a level of anonymity or at least personal space that they otherwise might not get.
GIDEON LASCO That's a very good point Bob. In fact, some of the countries which are debating whether to recommend face masks, even if they know that it's not effective at all. But to recommend that only the sick wear it is to invite those people to be marked as such and therefore it invites stigma, invites avoidance from other people. That's why this paradox is also messing up the attitudes not just of individual people, but also of governments and how to deal with face masks.
BOB GARFIELD There's another bit of collateral damage, and that is that the image of the Asian person wearing a mask has become so iconic that it has led to sometimes even violence because the wearer is perceived as an other and a threatening one as well. Is that a phenomenon only in the West?
GIDEON LASCO It is a phenomenon everywhere. But the coronavirus is spreading all over the world. People are wearing masks all over the world. And not just Asia. But at the same time, yes, it's not just a marker of a disease, but it's also, like you said, a marker of race. For example, I interviewed a man from China who traveled through Europe, and he told me that he doesn't need a mask, he doesn't want to wear a mask. But he felt that being an Asian guy people might feel that he's a risk so he better wear a mask just to prevent any kind of untoward in their action with other people. So mask-wearing, it's not just for individual health reasons, but there's also a performativity that’s involved in the wearing of masks that they have to display of compliance to unwritten rules of how you're supposed to behave.
BOB GARFIELD The signaling actually isn't confined to individuals. Governments seem to use the same psychology of the placebo effect of mask wearing to at least create the illusion that they've got the situation under control. You wrote about some Mayors in Philippines who distributed masks like some cities distribute smoke detectors.
GIDEON LASCO It's definitely one of the main themes that I'm seeing in how masks are used now. Companies give it to their employees, governments, for example, the government of Singapore was highly admired because the government was distributing masks to every Singaporean and that was a very powerful statement.
BOB GARFIELD That's more than a million households, right?
GIDEON LASCO Yes.
BOB GARFIELD And how many cases of the disease had been confirmed at the time?
GIDEON LASCO There were some cases people were beginning to panic all over the region. And their responses of different leaders were being compared and the Singaporean prime minister was the one who won the most acclaim in part because of this decision. Like look, wow. In other countries people are running out of masks, but in Singapore, that's a government who’s actually distributing all of these masks, even though in that same statement they said that, well, you don't really need it, but they still distribute like five masks per a household or something like that. They saw the political efficacy of distributing these masks as a way of reassuring their population.
BOB GARFIELD As you walk the streets of Manila, are you awash in masks?
GIDEON LASCO It comes and goes. So when the news first broke that there's a first case in the Philippines, people were wearing masks, but then after a few days, nothing happened. So people stopped wearing them. But now there are more cases and more people are wearing masks again. I would say roughly 20 percent of the people are wearing masks. Taxi drivers, students, maybe around one in four. I can see them wearing masks when walking on the streets.
BOB GARFIELD Well, you're a doc and also a scholar on this very subject. Do you wear one?
GIDEON LASCO I've never worn a mask for this purpose. I was just in Massachusetts last month to visit my sister and I contemplated briefly, should I at least bring a mask with me in the airports, maybe they'd expect me to wear a mask. But in the end I didn’t.
BOB GARFIELD So this same behavior of signaling and expectation that you're observing and others, the same thoughts ran through your mind?
GIDEON LASCO Absolutely. Even though I am a scholar and a doctor, I'm not immune to these thought processes that take place.
BOB GARFIELD Gideon, thank you very much.
GIDEON LASCO Well thank you, Bob. It's a pleasure talking to you.
BOB GARFIELD Dr. Gideon Lasco is a physician and medical anthropologist at the University of the Philippines Diliman.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Coming up, the compelling consolation of an old movie or one not so old nor so consoling.
BOB GARFIELD This is On the Media.
This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And I'm Brooke Gladstone. Two weeks ago on this program, we asked science writer Laurie Garrett about an old advisory from our Breaking News Consumers Handbook Infectious Disease Edition, the one that read: “Hollywood is Pretend.” Hollywood is Pretend.
LAURIE GARRETT I was one of the three scientific advisors on the film Contagion.
LAURIE GARRETT We went to great lengths to make it as accurate as we possibly could.
LAURIE GARRETT Many of the things that you see in the background, in contagion are things that I've either personally seen happen or that we role-play the empty shelves in the stores, the robberies of pharmacies, people at gunpoint trying to get food, the breakdown of trucking, shipping delivery. The, you're on your own, hunker down inside your home.
WESLEY MORRIS I heard that. And I thought, well, if this person worked on that movie, I want to go back and watch it again and see how it feels to watch it now.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And so New York Times critic Wesley Morris downloaded the film for a rewatch that was, at least initially, kind of comforting.
WESLEY MORRIS It's just amazing how the letters for the organizations and the players in the crisis and nightmare that we're living now are in this neat, little dramatic thriller that came out in 2011.
BROOKE GLADSTONE I know it's crazy. I mean, down to the bats.
[CONTAGION CLIP] The virus contains both bat and pig sequences from the bottom. Right. And see, the dark green is pig and the light green is bat. [END CLIP]
WESLEY MORRIS One of the things I love about this movie is it's so much about competency. The belief that knowledge is the key to the solution to problems in the real world. We also know that is true. But we're at a moment where we don't know what to believe and we don't know what to do, in part because we are in the middle of incredibly competency for no reason. This movie isn't really about the panic. It is about professional people getting their brains together to try to figure out a solution to a thing that is obviously panic inducing.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You know, as I talk to you, it strikes me that maybe this is a kind of public health West Wing.
[WEST WING CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE An idealized view of how it's supposed to work.
WESLEY MORRIS You know, it's even smarter to think about it that way because that way you don't have to deal with Aaron Sorkin having written it. There’s no romantic speech and yet it is this romance of efficiency and of government as the solution to national problem. And watching all these women being the faces and minds of the solution to this problem, too, is also really fascinating.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So you said that watching movie stars being world-savingly smart really does lower your blood pressure. But the title of your piece is, For Me. Rewatching Contagion Was Fun Until It Wasn't. When wasn't it fun?
WESLEY MORRIS Halfway through the movie, watching Elliot Gould lose it in that restaurant, watching the glasses being cleaned and the people coughing in their water. There was just something about the everyday-ness of a thing that a professional scientist might appreciate and then I think I'd gotten a text from a friend of mine who was saying that another person had died. And I just thought about the way that art can crystallize your confusion and answer your questions without really being the solution to a problem. I felt in that moment that I was watching no longer like a very entertaining worst case scenario, but a kind of crystallization of a thing that is happening all over the world right now, which is that people are living their lives and people are dying. And I know that that's the thing that happens every day. But under these circumstances, when we really ought to be thinking more about how we should be living our everyday lives because people are dying. It got heavy for me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE I was glad, I mean, we could argue whether it could have been handled better, but I was glad that at least the issue of class and nationality was addressed when the village outside of Hong Kong was really set to be extinguished because they would be at the bottom of the list that they decided to take a desperate measure.
WESLEY MORRIS It becomes clear that, like they aren’t your usual Asian bad guys, right? They do sort of toe a party line in terms of their skepticism about the seriousness of the virus. But then there is a plot twist. And the plot twist to me is entirely moral and it like, winked at it because the movie is about this class discrepancy, but it's not really about any one particular problem at all. It's about the number of ways in which a pandemic can bring out problems that already exist in society.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Unscrupulous journalists, the fundamental problem of supply, the ever present concern of both under reaction and military overreaction. It was a regular steaming bucket.
WESLEY MORRIS Yes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And you set this movie against 28 Days, the zombie film and the incredible novel Station Eleven, the AIDS documentary How to Survive a Plague. I notice you don't mention the old Dustin Hoffman flick with the great chimp beginning.
WESLEY MORRIS Outbreak.
BROOKE GLADSTONE I'm just wondering, in the pantheon of bio apocalyptic films that you've seen. You thought it had what the most, gravity?
WESLEY MORRIS I think it's the one that most directly overlays onto the moment.
WESLEY MORRIS It's the most ideal movie of this sort to watch at this particular moment. This isn't pandemic porn. It is something much more considered in terms of this system having to work completely. All the agencies having to work with each other, maintaining and I think this is really important, maintaining a tone among the agencies that keeps people from freaking completely out. You know, I think the best of this style of movie is something like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the one from ‘78.
WESLEY MORRIS I like myself a really good allegory, but we don't have the luxury at the moment. If we want to get the sense of how bad this can go of being too existential, because I think we're still in the phase of procedure. Right? We want a procedural explanation for what ought to happen. And so this movie is entirely procedural. There’s not an existential question really in it. And I truly, honestly believe that there is something about watching people do their jobs well, people who don't get paid a lot of money to do those jobs, who are doing their work because they believe in it and because it's the right thing to do and because there are lives on the line. And if you mess up, people will die. And it's your responsibility to get your stuff together to help solve these problems. We are in a moment right now where that is not happening. Part of the reason people are going to keep dying is because the system isn't working the way it's supposed to. People whose job it is to keep us safe and to give us answers, they at the very least aren't giving us the answers and the tools that are meant to keep us safe and tell us how much in danger we are don't seem to be working quite right. And you turned to a movie like this and you see not so much how it could be because this isn't even a moral movie. It's entirely ethical, but it becomes moral when you watch it feeling that there's a lack of competence happening on the other side of the screen.
BROOKE GLADSTONE I feel for those officials and, you know, laborers in our public health system who know better but aren't free to follow their best professional instincts.
WESLEY MORRIS I will never forget the guest you had on a couple of weeks ago. Liz Kim works for Gothamist.
BROOKE GLADSTONE She was listening in on the phone pressors that were given by Nancy Messonnier of the CDC.
WESLEY MORRIS Nancy Messonnier sounded this alarm weeks ago. And when the Trump administration really gets skeptically involved and wants to sort of take over the communications aspect of all matters relating to this Coronavirus, her tone had changed in the briefing room and she had seemed I mean, I'm not being glib when I say this body snatched. It really just kind of kills me because these are people who I don't know what it must be like to be on the ground trying to solve this problem and your counterparts at the top are completely compromised for no good reason.
BROOKE GLADSTONE In your piece, you referred to an early scene when they're dissecting the brain damage of victim number one.
WESLEY MORRIS I would, I mean, in part of this. I don’t know if you have this while you watch this, Brooke, but I really wanted to know what is going on right now in these labs. I want to know who these people are going to work every day. My sister, for instance, is an operating room nurse. And the protocols that are in the hospital have changed. I don't think she feels like she's compromised and can't speak about, you know, whatever problems are happening in her operating room. But I would love to know what it's like to be the CDC in a job not dissimilar from my sisters. Right? Like a person who is responsible for serving in the context of a larger operation, but the operation is compromised for reasons that don't make medical or scientific or biological sense. But they're all political. Politics is an obstruction to solutions, in this film, not the government politics. Well, I'll just say one other thing, which is, we should go back to 2011 for a second, because when the movie came out, it just was another thing to go see on a Friday night. And you can't go to the movies right now.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Right.
WESLEY MORRIS Like movies that are supposed to open in a month are now moving to 2021 movies that are supposed to open in a couple of weeks are now moving to unknown release dates. I think that, you know, these communal public experiences as we move further and further. Into ourselves. I think that a movie like Contagion is also useful, and I'm also curious to see if people pick up Station Eleven because it's a very different piece of art. And reading it under these circumstances will just like I mean get a box of tissues when you do it. But I wonder how we come out on the other side of this as people who for a while, if we take this as seriously as I think we ought to, are gonna be alone in our houses for a little while. Who do we want to be and what do we want to be doing when we're allowed to leave again and gather in public places and just have fun? I mean, it has nothing to do with Contagion, but you know, I'm sitting here alone in my house watching this movie that, you know, when it came out nine years ago, I was watching it in a theater full of extremely entertained people. Now, that is a ill-advised social activity. And I wonder if it's going to make us hungry for that again.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Thank you so much, Wesley.
WESLEY MORRIS Oh, thank you, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Wesley Morris is Critic at Large for The New York Times, as well as co-host with Jenna Wortham of The Times podcast, Still Processing.
BOB GARFIELD That's it for this week's show. On the Media is produced by Alana Casanova-Burgess, Micah Loewinger, Leah Feder, Jon Hanrahan, Asthaa Chaturvedi and Xandra Ellin. We had more help from Anthony Bansie and our show was edited by Brooke. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineers this week were Sam Bair and Josh Hahn.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Katya Rogers is our executive producer. On the Media is a production of WNYC Studios. And by the way, we had more shows than we could fit into the broadcast this week. So go to onthemedia.org to find those segments and sign up for our newsletter and we'll tell you about the extras we send out each and every week. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD And I'm Bob Garfield.