Yes, we are in the throes of a global health emergency. But political leaders shouldn’t expect journalists to suddenly roll over and support their every policy or proposal. On the contrary: Journalists must challenge those in authority, coronavirus or no coronavirus. That’s how we save lives.
When President Donald Trump said last week that he wanted the United States “opened up and just raring to go by Easter” — which would be by April 12 — several news outlets pointed to the experts, who noted the folly of such thinking. “Public health officials were horrified by Mr. Trump’s statement,” The New York Times reported, “which threatened to send many Americans back into the public square just as the peak of the virus was expected.” (On Sunday, Trump reversed himself, saying that coronavirus restrictions would remain in place at least through April 30.)
Trump has made so many false claims during his presidency — more than 16,000, according to the count kept by The Washington Post — that none of his projections for how the coronavirus crisis will play out should be given much credit. Back in February he said that “a lot of people think that [the coronavirus] goes away in April, with the heat,” and that the pandemic is “very well under control in our country.” In late March the United States surpassed China and Italy as the country with the largest number of coronavirus cases.
Trump can’t be trusted to deal with important matters that involve health and science. Remember that in 2013 he tweeted: “Global warming is a total, and very expensive, hoax!”
Like Trump, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has failed to take the virus seriously. In a recent speech he compared it to a “little flu” and said “there was no reason to close schools” because most of those affected by the virus were over 60 years of age. Apparently, Bolsonaro hasn’t read the medical reports underscoring the fact that children can infect their parents and grandparents, along with their siblings, teachers and even the bus drivers who take them to school.
In Mexico, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the president, has rightfully let doctors and other health specialists battle the virus. But he has, at times, disregarded their recommendations. To cite just three examples: He kissed a girl during a public event; proclaimed, “You can hug each other; there’s no problem” during a news conference; and in a recent video recorded in Oaxaca, he urged Mexicans, if they have the money, to continue going out to dinner, “because that strengthens the family and popular economy.”
The president’s actions have been met with severe criticism. “President López Obrador’s behavior in the face of the COVID-19 crisis is a profoundly dangerous example that threatens Mexicans’ health,” said José Miguel Vivanco, executive director for the Americas at Human Rights Watch.
Leaders like Trump, Bolsonaro and López Obrador are engaged in a debate with medical experts about whether economic activities should continue or even increase despite the pandemic, or whether the population’s health should instead be prioritized over the economy, and drastic measures adopted to restrict people’s movements.
This is a complex question: The world’s poorest citizens, many of whom make their living in the streets, need normal life to continue in order to sustain their economic survival. But failing to implement tough social-distancing measures, such as closing so-called nonessential businesses, could lead to a spike in infections, leading to the collapse of health care systems and the loss of lives.
This is why, even if politicians and businesspeople don’t like our work, it is journalists’ social and professional duty to point out the mistakes and contradictory statements of these leaders, and to inform the public about the potential consequences of their policies. We have to tell people when the government is placing their health — and in some cases their lives — at risk.
Sacrificing the life of even one person, regardless of age, for the sake of the stock exchanges in New York or São Paulo or Mexico City should be out of the question. Our priority should be to preserve lives, not businesses. There’s no need to trigger needless panic, but leaders must be aware: While they argue, as Trump has, that “we cannot let the cure be worse” than the disease, the death and infection figures keep rising. We can’t let people return to the streets, to their offices and schools, until the curve plotted by the number of new cases begins to flatten. To do otherwise would be grossly irresponsible.
This is a matter of ongoing credibility, for both political leaders and journalists. If people don’t trust you or believe what you say, how can you possibly do your job effectively? It is during times of crisis that politicians are tested, and that competent and visionary leaders emerge. And the same is true of the press.
I see journalism as a public service. During this pandemic, we must be focused above all on three things: reporting the truth as it is, not as we would like it to be; challenging those in power; and providing the public with information that can help save lives.
We must get back to basics. In a time like this, when leaders rely on fake news and resort to deception even as we battle a rapidly spreading virus, nothing is more vital than telling the truth based on the data and the facts, on highlighting accurate medical reporting rather than offering speeches on behalf of financial interests. Even if this means acknowledging that the worst is yet to come.
The press challenges those in power not because we’re part of some conspiracy to take them down, or want to blame them for the emergence of a disease they had nothing to do with. Nobody wants the United States, or Brazil, or Mexico to suffer. This is all about surviving, and surviving together.
At the end of the day, journalists who don’t agree with their leaders and have the courage to say so can save lives. Is anything more important than that?