There’s an old trick in the journalists’ playbook. If a conflict is brewing, ask a defence official whether they rule out military action. The inevitable response – “We don’t rule anything out” – yields juicy headlines: “Country X doesn’t rule out military strike against Country Y.” The danger, of course, is that Country Y might view this as an actual threat. And just like that, the media has unintentionally made actual military conflict that little bit more likely.
Such a move was used this weekend to corner the popular Dr Anthony Fauci (pictured), director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Fauci was asked repeatedly on CNN whether the US “could have saved lives” had it implemented social distancing earlier. How was he to respond? Of course it could have done. Frankly, so could almost every other country. Yet Fauci’s answer was diplomatic: “no-one is going to deny” that lives could have been saved, he said, but “what goes into those decisions is complicated”. That didn’t prevent headlines such as, “Fauci concedes US could have saved lives” being written, drawing the ire of the easily offended President Trump, who retweeted a call for Fauci to be fired.
This is not to say that the Trump administration is blameless or that it shouldn’t have acted sooner to quell the outbreak in the US. But let’s give our governments and, in particular, our health officials a break. We all now live in a world of social distancing but that doesn’t mean that the initial unprecedented decision to shutter businesses was an easy one to make; think back to how you felt just two months ago, when social distancing wasn’t the norm. There will be plenty of time for 20-20 hindsight when this pandemic is over. For now, I would rather see Fauci stay in his job than read that juicy headline.