Scientific warnings are being ignored, misinformation is spreading, and prominent Republicans have said tackling the problem is either too costly or too difficult. No, this is not climate change: this is the new reality of the new coronavirus, the deadly pandemic that is sweeping the planet.
In recent weeks, as global COVID-19 cases have risen to more than 500,000, conspiracy theories and fake news have also been on the rise. On Monday, a man died after ingesting chloroquine phosphate, an ingredient in an antimalarial drug that President Trump had announced as a coronavirus cure.
Meanwhile, the Snopes website has been forced to reduce its fact-checking work in response to the overwhelming number of false stories surrounding the pandemic. (Some disturbing highlights: They claim that the coronavirus was released by world governments to distract themselves from a planet-killing doomsday asteroid, or that breathing hot air from a hair dryer can kill the virus.)
But these wild conspiracy theories hide a bigger problem: widespread skepticism about the severity of the crisis. President Trump played down the risk of the virus for months, saying the situation was "very under control" and that the pandemic would disappear in April. Fox News anchors initially denied that the coronavirus was a significant threat, calling out concerned scientists and policy makers to "force a panic" by plotting to defeat the president. Sean Hannity referred to him as "a new hoax."
Evidence shows that such spreading misinformation can put more people at risk. According to a working paper published last year, when public figures dismissed warnings of destruction raised by approaching hurricanes, people were less likely to evacuate.
Similar layoffs from the coronavirus pandemic could be influencing the response of some states. Twenty-four states have yet to close nonessential businesses, including traditionally "red" states like Texas, Nebraska, and Wyoming. Telephone data has also revealed that residents of the red states are less likely to practice social distancing measures. Meanwhile, at conservative Liberty University in Virginia, students are being invited to return to campus this week, even as other colleges across the country close their doors. And, according to polls, Republicans are more likely to say that the media is exaggerating the crisis, and less likely to be "extremely concerned" about the pandemic.
This kind of partisan scientific divide is not new. Stephan Lewandowsky, a professor of psychology at the University of Bristol in England, argues that denial of the coronavirus is similar to denial of climate change. It is also perpetuated by the same cast of characters. "Online, some of the 'professional' climate deniers are now professional COVID downplayers as well," he said. "They perceive it as a threat, in the same way that climate change is, not only for the economy, but also for the way the economy operates."
Lewandowsky believes that certain political opinions can drive the rejection of scientific evidence. People who champion individualism, idolize the free market, or take an anti-big government stance may find it easier to minimize the severity of these crises than to imagine a world requiring economically devastating work stoppages, or even taxes. carbon.
John Cook, a professor of cognitive science at George Mason University, argues that social identity also plays a role. "In the case of climate change, several studies have found that 'elite signals', or simply signals from political leaders, are one of the main drivers of changes in attitudes," he said. That is, if President Trump minimizes the risk of climate change or the coronavirus, his followers and an entire media ecosystem are likely to follow closely.