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The Impossibility of Honest Debate
It would be helpful to know for sure where COVID-19 came from. But even if we did, who would believe it?
January 20, 2020
On the same day the CDC “reported the first laboratory-confirmed case of the 2019 Novel Coronavirus in the U.S.,” The Washington Post published an analysis showing that Donald Trump had lied 16,241 times since taking office.
As The Post noted, Trump’s lies accelerated rapidly in 2019, a year in which “the president said more than the total number of false or misleading claims he had made in the previous two years.”
And like the novel coronavirus, Trump was just getting started.
For those who had worried in 2016 that “the next President must be ready to face sudden, unexpected, possibly terrifying challenges” that a career-criminal-turned-reality-star like Trump would be unable to handle, it was quickly becoming clear that America was now facing a Worst President Scenario.
January 24, 2020
Back in early 2020, when word started leaking about the new strain of coronavirus threatening to spread throughout the planet, there was much early chatter about where it came from.
On January 24, the day the U.S. announced its second confirmed case, even NPR was calling it the “Wuhan coronavirus.”
To many people, the idea that the “Wuhan coronavirus” might have leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology in Wuhan, China seemed perfectly plausible.
But Trump tweeted (with his usual authority) that China was “working very hard to contain the Coronavirus.” He even thanked his partial-trade-deal-signing buddy President Xi for his “transparency” in the matter.
Trump and Xi had everything under control. The “American people” had nothing to worry about.
March 16, 2020
Seven weeks later, Trump was singing an entirely different tune. On March 16, 2020, he tweeted his first reference to the “Chinese Virus.”
Despite leaning in early to the anti-Asian-hate-crime-inciting rhetoric that the name “COVID-19” was meant to avoid, Trump was still promising Americans that the whole “Carona” nonsense would gone by Easter.
April 23, 2020
Easter came and went, but soon after we thought we had a cure!
Trump who previously claimed to have “shut it down coming in from China,” was now deflecting blame and inciting more attacks on Asian-Americans by calling Covid the “Kung Flu.”
By the time Trump left office, 400,000 Americans were dead from Covid, many killed by the lies and misinformation that spewed from the mouth of a one-term loser who left office in disgrace having told 30,573 lies.
Trump wasn’t the first lying Republican, of course. In 2012, Mitt Romney and Paul “Lyin’” Ryan famously refused to “be governed by facts” in how they waged their vicious and dishonest campaign to unseat Obama. But if there’s one thing Trump deserves credit for, he did complete the GOP’s rebrand as the “Party of Lies.”
So… where did COVID-19 originate?
In the spring of 2020, when President Donald Trump started promoting the lab-leak theory, (he) hijack(ed) it from any reasonable discussion.
But the people in favor of reasonable discussions weren’t done yet.
In May, 2021, a group of prominent scientists published a letter in Science, calling for an origins investigation that took the lab-leak hypothesis seriously… In response, President Biden called for an investigation into the pandemic’s origins.
According to Kormann:
Circumstantial evidence supporting a new narrative—that the pandemic might have started from a lab accident in Wuhan—began to accumulate in late 2020. Online data sets from the W.I.V. had disappeared, information on a previous outbreak had been elided, and W.I.V. researchers were conducting experiments with engineered viruses. Even Andersen acknowledged that the emergence of the virus in Wuhan is “a crazy coincidence.”
But was it indeed a crazy coincidence? As Kormann also notes:
The Chinese government shuttered and sanitized the Huanan market on January 1, 2020, essentially destroying a crime scene. China’s officials told W.H.O. investigators that no live mammals were sold there—a position they still maintain. But a virologist at Hubei University of Traditional Chinese Medicine had been, he wrote, “serendipitously” conducting monthly surveys to identify the source of a severe tick-borne disease. In June, he published a study containing documentary evidence that, in the two years prior to the emergence of SARS-CoV-2, nearly fifty thousand live animals representing thirty-eight wild species—many of which are now known to be susceptible to SARS-CoV-2—were sold and butchered in Wuhan markets, including Huanan.
Spillovers happen far more often than anyone realizes. People are exposed to bats when they shelter in caves, harvest bat guano—the world’s best fertilizer—and hunt, butcher, and eat bats, which is a well-documented practice in various pockets across the region. “These small villages are at the edge of disappearing forests,” Kendra Phelps, a bat biologist with the EcoHealth Alliance and a co-author on the recent study, told me. “Inside that forest is densely packed wildlife, which is super stressed by things like encroaching palm oil and rice monocultures.” Stressed animals (just like us) are more likely to get sick and shed virus.
How often does that happen?
EcoHealth scientists built a model analyzing how frequently coronaviruses might spill over from bats to people across southern China and southeast Asia. They overlaid the habitats of all twenty-three bat species known to harbor SARS-related coronaviruses with maps of human populations. Based on bat-human contact and antibody data, they estimated that roughly four hundred thousand people could be infected with SARS-related coronaviruses annually. “People are getting exposed to them every year,” (Peter) Daszak (president of the EcoHealth Alliance) told me. “They may not know it. They may even get sick and die.”
As you may have guessed, I don’t know for sure where COVID-19 came from. Writes Kormann:
The lab leakers tend to be more interested in biosecurity, transparency, and human hubris. They exhibit an admirable drive to follow the money, to upend centralized power, to overturn academic hierarchy, and to expose the injustices of oppressive governments. Some are China hawks. By and large, they have not done virus-hunting field or lab work.
But I do know that in 21st-Century America—thanks to our toxic politics, the 24/7/365 influence of conservative propaganda “news” media, and a Republican Party intent only on “knifing Biden”—it’s impossible to have an honest, fact-based national discussion about the origins of Covid-19.
And, as with many things, our inability to have an honest debate leaves us less prepared to handle whatever extinction-level event comes next.
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