Quantcast
Environmental News for a Healthier Planet and Life

Help Support EcoWatch

Coronavirus and the Terrifying Muzzling of Public Health Experts

Health + Wellness
A researcher works in a lab that is developing testing for the COVID-19 coronavirus at Hackensack Meridian Health Center for Discovery and Innovation on Feb. 28 in Nutley, New Jersey. Kena Betancur / Getty Images News / Getty Images

By Michael Halpern

The Trump administration is scrambling to reconcile the president's contradictions of statements made by federal health scientists about the emerging coronavirus crisis. Their solution: muzzle scientists, require that all statements be politically vetted through Vice President Pence, and punish federal employees who draw attention to gross negligence. This is a highly dangerous power grab that undermines both emergency response and public faith in the reliability of information coming out of the government. And it speaks to the incompetence and incoherence of the response to this crisis so far.


It's hard to keep track of the number of Trump appointees who should know basic facts about the coronavirus but don't. Then yesterday, we learned that the actual public health experts in government would no longer be allowed to speak publicly about the outbreak without the vice president's blessing. Via The New York Times:

"Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, one of the country's leading experts on viruses and the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told associates that the White House had instructed him not to say anything else without clearance."'

CDC already has a 65-page manual for communicating complex scientific information to the public in times of crisis. "Clearance" by the White House will not improve this function.

Later yesterday afternoon, the Washington Post reported that government health officials were sent to take in evacuees without proper training or protective gear. An employee who raised concerns has filed a whistleblower complaint after facing retaliation. According to the Post:

"The whistleblower is seeking federal protection because she alleges she was unfairly and improperly reassigned after raising concerns about the safety of these workers to HHS officials, including those within the office of Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar. She was told Feb. 19 that if she does not accept the new position in 15 days, which is March 5, she would be terminated."

As chronicled by UCS's Anita Desikan, previous Trump administration actions have already compromised government response. The State Department overruled objections by CDC scientists and allowed 14 people who tested positive for the virus to fly together with non-infected people. Global disease surveillance systems were weakened. Initiatives to better understand viruses in animals were shuttered. And National Security Council global health security experts were pushed out the door.

We already know that this White House prioritizes the president's ego over giving the public the information it needs. Remember Sharpiegate? The president erroneously claimed that Hurricane Dorian would hit Alabama. The professional civil service staff at the National Weather Service clarified that the state was not in the path of the storm. That's their job.

Rather than admit a mistake, White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney ordered the acting NOAA administrator to repudiate the experts and prevent other scientists from talking about the path of the storm. During the hurricane. Under termination threats, NOAA political appointees buckled, telling professional staff that the even when public safety is concerned, the president is always right.

We know that the president will fire anyone who crosses him, even leaders within the intelligence services, with nary a whimper from his allies in Congress who claim to care about the Constitution. The emperor will be sure that nobody will tell him when he has no clothes.

What will happen now that the White House has a compelling self-interest in downplaying the extent of the coronavirus outbreak in light of the plummeting stock market? Don't count on Pence, who was overheard complaining that he had "nothing to do."

There is no substitute for experienced government professional staff who are focused on the public interest. That becomes even more critical in times of emergency. If this censorship and retaliation trend continues, we can expect more gross incompetence in handling the virus' spread. More people will get needlessly sick and more people will needlessly die.

If the White House has no qualms about misleading the public about weather forecasts, how can we possibly expect them to tell the truth about a major public health crisis? Enough with the political vetting. We need to hear directly from the experts.

Michael Halpern is an expert on political interference in science and solutions to reduce suppression, manipulation, and distortion of government science.

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Refrigerated trucks function as temporary morgues at the South Brooklyn Marine Terminal on May 06, 2020 in New York City. As of July, the states where COVID-19 cases are rising are mostly in the West and South. Justin Heiman / Getty Images

The official number of people in the U.S. who have lost their lives to the new coronavirus has now passed 130,000, according to tallies from The New York Times, Reuters and Johns Hopkins University.

Read More Show Less
A man walks on pink snow at the Presena glacier near Pellizzano, Italy on July 4, 2020. MIGUEL MEDINA / AFP via Getty Images

In a troubling sign for the future of the Italian Alps, the snow and ice in a glacier is turning pink due to the growth of snow-melting algae, according to scientists studying the pink ice phenomenon, as CNN reported.

Read More Show Less
Climate activist Greta Thunberg discusses EU plans to tackle the climate emergency with Parliament's environment committee on March 4, 2020. CC-BY-4.0: © European Union 2020 – Source: EP

By Abdullahi Alim

The 2008 financial crisis spurred a number of youth movements including Occupy Wall Street and the Arab Spring. A decade later, this anger resurfaced in a new wave of global protests, from Hong Kong to Beirut to London, only this time driven by the children of the 2008 financial crisis.

Read More Show Less
A climate activist holds a victory sign in Washington, DC. after President Obama announced that he would reject the Keystone XL Pipeline proposal on November 6, 2015. Mark Wilson / Getty Images

By Jake Johnson

The Supreme Court late Monday upheld a federal judge's rejection of a crucial permit for Keystone XL and blocked the Trump administration's attempt to greenlight construction of the 1,200-mile crude oil project, the third such blow to the fossil fuel industry in a day—coming just hours after the cancellation of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and the court-ordered shutdown of the Dakota Access Pipeline.

Read More Show Less
A forest fire in Yakutsk in eastern Siberia on June 2, 2020. Yevgeny Sofroneyev / TASS via Getty Images

Once thought too frozen to burn, Siberia is now on fire and spewing carbon after enduring its warmest June ever, according to CNN.

Read More Show Less
The Colima fir tree's distribution has been reduced to the area surrounding the Nevado de Colima volcano. Agustín del Castillo

By Agustín del Castillo

For 20 years, the Colima fir tree (Abies colimensis) has been at the heart of many disputes to conserve the temperate forests of southern Jalisco, a state in central Mexico. Today, the future of this tree rests upon whether the area's avocado crops will advance further and whether neighboring communities will unite to protect it.

Read More Show Less

Trending

Independent environmental certifications offer a better indicator of a product's eco credentials, including labor conditions for workers involved in production. Flickr / CC by 2.0

By Jeanette Cwienk

This summer's high street fashions have more in common than styles and colors. From the pink puff-sleeved dream going for just €19.99 ($22.52) at H&M, to Zara's elegant €12.95 ($14.63) halter-neck dress, clothing stores are alive with cheap organic cotton.

"Sustainable" collections with aspirational own-brand names like C&A's "Wear the change," Zara's "join life" or H&M's "CONSCIOUS" are offering cheap fashion and a clean environmental conscience. Such, at least, is the message. But is it really that simple?

Read More Show Less