As the death toll from the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 soars in the U.S. and statistical models predict more than 100,000 to come, conservative media personalities are pushing the ghoulish argument that the fatality statistics are “inflated” because they count people who died with the disease but also had underlying conditions. This is the next frontier in the right's effort to downplay the effect of the coronavirus in order to defend President Donald Trump.
New York City’s Health Department breaks down its data for COVID-19 deaths by identifying how many of the deceased had underlying conditions, how many did not, and how many for whom that information is currently unknown. Some online conspiracy theorists have argued that only the death toll for the tiny fraction of cases without underlying conditions should be considered, a frame subsequently adopted by some right-wing media figures. But as the Daily Dot noted in demolishing this talking point, a large percentage of Americans have at least one of the listed conditions, which include high blood pressure, asthma, and diabetes.
In fact, COVID-19’s death toll is almost certainly being undercounted. The Wall Street Journal analyzed data from Italy and concluded that as the virus stretched the health care system to its breaking point, “many people who die from the virus don’t make it to the hospital and are never tested,” and thus are not included in the official count. By comparing the number of deaths in particular communities to the same period a year ago, the Journal concluded that the true count is “far higher” than the recorded one. Evidence from Spain and anecdotal reports from the United States suggest that the Italian experience is not an anomaly.
But that hasn’t kept leading right-wing media figures, including people from both Fox News’ “opinion” and “news” sides, from pushing the flawed argument that the count is being exaggerated.
“I cannot find anywhere the definition of what it means to die from this virus,” Fox host Mark Levin noted on his BlazeTV show earlier this week. “In other words,” he continued, “if I go into the hospital and I already have a very, very bad heart, and I’m not given a whole lot of time, and then I get this virus, and it puts me over the edge, is that counted as dying from heart failure, heart disease, a heart attack, if you have one, or the virus?” “I don’t know,” he added.
Rush Limbaugh, who received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Trump and spent much of last month claiming that coronavirus was no different from the common cold, offered a similar argument today. “It’s admittedly speculation,” he claimed, but “what if we are recording a bunch of deaths to coronavirus which really should not be chalked up to coronavirus?” He continued: “People die on this planet every day from a wide variety of things. But because the coronavirus is out there, got everybody paranoid, governments are eager, almost, to chalk up as many deaths to coronavirus as they can because then it furthers the policies they have put in place by virtue of their models.”
Brit Hume, Fox’s senior political analyst and the former lead anchor of the network’s “news” side, was even more adamant. Hume highlighted what he termed a “very informative thread” on Twitter Wednesday evening and used it to argue that “NY's Covid 19 fatality numbers are inflated” because they don’t “distinguish between those who die with the disease and those who die from it.”
The thread Hume cited was written by someone whose Twitter bio identifies him as an “Investor” and “extreme salesman.” The thread describes the New York City statistics as “cooked” and suggests that efforts to control the spread of the virus in Germany and the United Kingdom are using fascist tactics. The author has previously questioned whether the coronavirus is a “leaked bioweapon.”
This wasn’t the first time Hume has credulously promoted contrarian coronavirus takes from people with no relevant experience. Last month, he shared a “smart analysis” a Silicon Valley technologist had posted on Medium claiming that the virus’s threat was relatively low and did not justify efforts by public health officials to close businesses. Medium took the piece down after experts dissected its shoddy statistical analysis, and Hume shared another Twitter thread debunking it after I called attention to his tweet.
Expect this argument to gain increasing credence on Fox and elsewhere in the right-wing media. In an effort to explain away the president’s failure to contain the coronavirus, Trumpists will absurdly declare that the “real” coronavirus death toll is much lower than it is. They will pretend not to see the refrigerator trucks outside hospitals serving as temporary morgues to hold the excess of bodies, or the mass graves under construction as their final resting place.
We saw something similar after Hurricane Maria triggered a humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico. When the Puerto Rican government raised the official death toll to 2,975, based on estimates from an independent study it had commissioned, Trump claimed that the updated count was fake and an attempt to attack him politically -- and his devoted right-wing media sycophants rushed to take his side.
After their network spent weeks downplaying the danger posed by the coronavirus, Fox personalities are now angrily denying that ever happened. But grappling with the full horror of what is happening would require them to place some amount of blame on the president, and they are desperately searching for ways to avoid that.