Presidential Fallacies Fueling the COVID-19 Pandemic

This is the third essay in the series that will encompass lessons drawn from current events and circumstances that teachers can incorporate in their writing and reading curriculum. These lessons are tested in my own classroom and will sometimes include some stories from my own teaching adventures.

Every day, the President gets up to debrief the country on the latest pandemic news. However, audiences quickly found that the briefings were not a source of credible information. They became fearmongering sessions full of outright lies and several fallacies.

Here are just a few examples and how they are affecting our lives in the coronavirus pandemic. For more, check out the series.

Fallacies are statements created from a nugget of truth that manipulated to reach a false conclusion. Fallacies are not harmless, they do damage. Each fallacy here is divided to show the nugget of truth and the damage done by fallacy. For some, the damage from the President’s fallacies has been devastating.

The Red Herring

“The Obama administration made a decision on testing that turned out to be very detrimental to what we’re doing. And we undid that decision a few days ago so that the testing can take place in a much more accurate and rapid fashion.”

In a March 6 briefing, Trump blamed the delays on his predecessor Barack Obama. It’s not the first time, but this time, the statement not only deflected blame from Trump, but it also gave hope that tests for coronavirus would become freely available.

Photo by History in HD on Unsplash

The Truth: The truth in this fallacy is that Obama did try to push regulations on lab-developed tests like the one for the coronavirus. However, the regulations never passed, and even if they had, Trump could have overwritten them at any point without much difficulty. He’s already done so to several Obama era regulations. So, the one true part of this fallacy is a regulation that never passed.

The Damage: The New York Times recently detailed the reasons why the US official count of COVID-19 cases and deaths are understated. Among them is the lack of available tests for the virus. The story quoted doctors and even coroners who say they can’t determine if a death was coronavirus because they were denied a test upon request. There weren’t any available. We truly will not know just how many people have contracted the virus.

Slippery Slope Fallacy

On March 20, citing the need to control the spread of the coronavirus, Trump closed the southern border to Mexico. He stated during the daily briefing, “Our nation’s top healthcare officials are concerned about the great public health consequences of mass, uncontrolled cross-border movement.” According to Trump, the border between Mexico and the US would be a hotbed of virus-spreading activity. This, despite his tweeting about China, using a derogatory label for the virus whenever possible. He closed the US to travelers from China and now, to prevent the spread of the virus throughout the US, he closes the border to Mexico. This is a slippery slope fallacy.

The Truth: The experts say that the US should have practiced social distancing and isolation sooner. While Trump was concentrated on Mexico, Florida and the Gulf beaches were swarming with students on spring break. Trump was letting the individual governors decide what to do about their state borders. In reality, the administration had known about the outbreak, warned, on January 3. They didn’t start truly mobilizing until 10 weeks later, in late March.

The Damage: So, the slippery slope of undocumented immigrants causing the US a great public health concern if the borders were left open is not true. We caused it ourselves by not acting soon enough. Closing the borders at that point only served to cause a bottleneck at the airports and give the virus a place to find new bodies to infect.

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Photo by CDC on Unsplash

Begging the Question

In mid-March, Trump began to change his tune on the pandemic. As he did, the inflammatory use of the term “Chinese virus” began to pop up. This alongside calls to close the US borders to Chinese travelers. This is a fallacy called begging the question or begging the claim. The insulting label assumes that Chinese travelers are bringing the virus into the country — are the ones responsible for bringing the virus into the US so far. This tweet also reasons that Trump stopped further spread of the virus by closing the borders early.

The Truth: The first reports of the virus were from China, back in December 2019. However, the origin is suspected to be a lab-related and not from a person eating contaminated bat (as many racist memes have suggested).

The Damage: The use of the term is xenophobic and does incite the President’s racist base. And it has. According to a Vox article on the subject, San Francisco researchers found 1,000 “cases of xenophobia” against Chinese Americans between January 28 and February 24, 2020. A New York Times article detailed assaults and attacks on Asian Americans across the country. He calls the use of innocent, but his switch from the use of the word coronavirus was noticed. He used the term “coronavirus” solidly until the need came to deflect from the testing failures and rising death toll.

Note: The damage also makes the case for a red herring fallacy.

Post Hoc Ergo Prompter Hoc Fallacy

On April 7, Dr. Anthony Fauci, a member of the White House coronavirus task force, acknowledged information that doctors and community leaders have been saying for days. The coronavirus hit the black community at a disproportionately higher rate than other ethnicities. Dr. Fauci goes on to say that the black community is plagued by illnesses such as diabetes, asthma, and heart disease that make them more susceptible to the virus. In the same press conference, Dr. Deborah Birx of the task force later stated, “What our data suggests is they are more susceptible to more difficult and severe disease, and poorer outcomes…We need to make sure that every household is aware of what it’s going to take to protect the individuals in the household that have pre-existing conditions.” These two sealed the working headline for the country for the rest of the week, a headline that was a post hoc ergo prompter hoc fallacy.

Also known as “after this, therefore resulting from it,” this fallacy is like the slippery slope. However, the difference is that the cause and its alleged effect have already happened. The fallacy is in reasoning about the relationship between the two events. The White House coronavirus task force is saying that because black communities have higher rates of diabetes, heart disease, and asthma, they are more likely to contract and die from coronavirus. This is the fallacy.

The Truth: A day later, the city of St. Louis announced that all 12 of its deaths from coronavirus were black people. However, Chicago announced that 70 percent of its deaths are black people. It is also true that the black community is beset by those conditions which seem most susceptible to the virus. However, the links between black people and any health problem are more complex than genetics and overeating. Vox’s article, “COVID-19 is Disproportionately Taking Black Lives” details the racial disparities in healthcare and wealth in America that have put the black community in the position to be vulnerable to the virus.

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The black community has a long and racist history with the American medical establishment. The “Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male,” is one reason. Black people have been abused and mistreated by doctors in ways that are now well documented, but often ignored by politicians.

The conditions that plague the black community are due to institutionalized racist policies that date back to slavery. The coronavirus is just taking advantage of a people that American society has already left vulnerable.

The Damage: By placing the blame for the fact that the virus is killing Black Americans at an alarming rate back on the black people, the task force turning this into a problem that is not their own. They are essentially saying, “Look at what they did to themselves.” This not only throws the blame on the community, but it also makes it easy for the government to throw that responsibility for healing on the community as well. Advancing this narrative will rob the community of the meager funding and care it already receives. More people will die.

There are several more fallacies that you could gather just from listening to the daily briefings. The President is not the only one spinning them, either. His administration and a few of the Republican governors are also out there making some wild claims when we all need to be well-informed and safe.

Navigating fallacies is one way to help navigate the truth in this pandemic. For now, you can find good, factual information by typing COVID or coronavirus into a Google Search. They are giving the top spots to the sources that are credible and giving only factual info.

Get more fallacies as they are recorded in the living series, Presidential Fallacies Fueling the Pandemic. it’s an extension of this article is a form that is easy to read and will be updated as the pandemic wears on.

Written by

Jonita Davis is a writer, film critic, and professor. She’s a member of NABJ, AAFCA, a Rotten Tomatoes critic, and an adjunct professor.

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