When an Epidemic Looms, Gagging Scientists Is a Terrible Idea

Many times in many countries, political leaders have tried to censor health officials and play down the risks of infection just as epidemics approached.

This strategy has almost never worked, historians and former health officials said. And ultimately, if there are more deaths than leaders blithely predict, it destroys the reputations of the leaders themselves.

This week’s efforts to reorganize the Trump administration’s chaotic response to the coronavirus outbreak risk falling into that pattern. The White House will coordinate all messaging, the public was told, and scientists in government employ will not be popping up on television talk shows, saying whatever they think.

That may not be a winning strategy, experts warned. The stock market reacts to rumors, and the Federal Reserve Bank may succumb to political pressure. But pathogens, like hurricanes and tsunamis, are immune to spin.

As they bore into communities, how many people in their path survive usually depends on whether a country’s leaders can correctly read early warning signs, muster an intelligent response and adroitly adjust their tactics if the threat changes.

For that to happen, medical expertise must outweigh campaign messaging. China has already experienced the consequences.

Initially, officials in Wuhan — the city at the epicenter of the coronavirus epidemic — claimed that the new lethal pneumonia associated with a seafood market there was not jumping from person to person.

When that was exposed as a lie, local officials arrested and threatened the first doctors to expose it. As hospitals were mobbed, large numbers of Wuhanese began dying, and cases began cropping up in other cities.

Beijing tried to play down negative news in state-controlled media. As a result, a population that normally does not dare criticize its leaders began doing so — loudly.

Finally, stung by the outcry, President Xi Jinping asserted that he had been in charge all along, although critics noted that the initial response was inept.

  • Updated Feb. 26, 2020

    • What is a coronavirus?
      It is a novel virus named for the crownlike spikes that protrude from its surface. The coronavirus can infect both animals and people and can cause a range of respiratory illnesses from the common cold to more dangerous conditions like Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS.
    • How do I keep myself and others safe?
      Washing your hands frequently is the most important thing you can do, along with staying at home when you’re sick.
    • What if I’m traveling?
      The C.D.C. has warned older and at-risk travelers to avoid Japan, Italy and Iran. The agency also has advised against all nonessential travel to South Korea and China.
    • Where has the virus spread?
      The virus, which originated in Wuhan, China, has sickened more than 80,000 people in at least 33 countries, including Italy, Iran and South Korea.
    • How contagious is the virus?
      According to preliminary research, it seems moderately infectious, similar to SARS, and is probably transmitted through sneezes, coughs and contaminated surfaces. Scientists have estimated that each infected person could spread it to somewhere between 1.5 and 3.5 people without effective containment measures.
    • Who is working to contain the virus?
      World Health Organization officials have been working with officials in China, where growth has slowed. But this week, as confirmed cases spiked on two continents, experts warned that the world was not ready for a major outbreak.

Something similar may happen in the United States, now that the virus has reached these shores.

“It’s crucially important that experts tell the public what they know and when they know it,” said Dr. Thomas R. Frieden, a former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“That’s the only way to earn and maintain the public trust that is essential to work together as a society and fight an epidemic.”

On Friday, the president of the Service Employees International Union, which represents two million health care workers, accused Mr. Trump of jeopardizing its members’ health by playing down the epidemic’s severity.

The administration “must immediately reverse course and allow public health experts to lead a nationally coordinated response,” said the S.E.I.U. president, Mary Kay Henry.

Medical groups decried the idea of muzzling or sidelining scientists.

“Introducing a political sieve between the scientists and the public undermines the public’s right to know the truth about the health threats they face,” said Dr. Keith Martin, executive director of the Consortium of Universities for Global Health.

Previous American presidents have tried, unsuccessfully, to suppress bad news about disease.

In early 1918, said Dr. Howard Markel, a medical historian at the University of Michigan medical school, President Woodrow Wilson told his own staff to keep silent about the devastating flu then striking the American military.

“They were taking precautions like wearing masks, but he ordered them not to talk about it,” Dr. Markel said. “But it was spreading so fast that attempts to cover it up were just silly.”

That pandemic became known as the Spanish flu — even though it first hit the American, English, French and German armies in Europe — because war correspondents were subject to military censorship. Reports of widespread deaths of young soldiers were considered bad for morale.

In neutral Spain, newspapers were free to report deaths on the front pages.

Message control also failed in Hamburg, Germany, in 1892, Dr. Markel noted. The city’s business and civic leaders conspired to suppress news of its cholera epidemic.

But word leaked out, and ships from Hamburg, a major port, became suspect and were refused entry when they tried to dock in the United States.

During the early 1980s, a mysterious illness appeared: Its victims slowly wasted away and died despite all attempts to save them. No one knew the cause, how it was transmitted or who, if anyone, was safe.

Because it struck hardest at groups who initially had no political power, including gay men, hemophiliacs, heroin users and Haitians, President Ronald Reagan for years did not even acknowledge the outbreak of what was first called Gay-Related Immune Disease and ultimately Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, or AIDS.

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But public health officials in cities like San Francisco were forced to confront it — and they realized that they had to institute policies that would mean asking victims extremely intrusive questions, including their sexual orientation and the names of all their sexual partners.

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