Why the surgeon general’s embarrassing gaffe on Fox News actually really matters
Surgeon General Jerome Adams is, unfortunately, not inspiring confidence as the United States faces the national health crisis presented by Covid-19, the novel coronavirus.
On Saturday, he criticized the media for looking into the origins of the Trump administration's failures to adequately address the crisis as it emerged. He said there should be "no more finger-pointing or criticism" and that news outlets should produce "less stories looking at what happened in the past." (He said there would be time for such stories later, but understanding why the government response has failed is important now.)
And on Monday, he made what seemed like a relatively minor gaffe on Fox News by falsely referring to South Korea as an "authoritarian." But it was, in fact, a deeply revealing slip-up.
"We are not an authoritarian nation, so we have to be careful when we say 'Let's do what China did. Let's do what South Korea did,'" Adams said of Fox & Friends.
At the same time, he discussed the fact that President Donald Trump and the rest of the federal government is leaning toward giving more direction to state and local governments. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, for instance, announced Sunday night that it is urging people across the country to refrain from holding gatherings of 50 or more people for at least the next eight weeks.
But Adams's false implication that South Korea is an "authoritarian" nation (alongside the true claim that China is authoritarian) sends a misleading and troubling message about what is necessary and possible to fight Covid-19.
Because while the United States is clearly behind the curve on mitigating the worst effects of the outbreak, South Korea has actually been successful in breaking the tide. Implying that it can only do so with "authoritarian" measures send two troubling messages: that the techniques needed for slowing the spread of the virus are unacceptable, and that there's no meaningful sense in which the United States should be going further to fight the pandemic.
In an article for The Hill, writer Chia-Yi Hou explained why South Korea has managed to get its outbreak under control:
One of the main reasons South Korea is handling the coronavirus outbreak well is that testing is widely available.
People in South Korea can get swabbed for testing in drive-thru clinics, which can reduce the burden on hospitals and reduce risk for health workers. A biotech company in the country developed a test within three weeks, according to CNN.
Individuals who would like to be tested for the virus and get the backing of a doctor can request one, making it easy and accessible. There’s a network of 96 laboratories that process the samples, with testing being a major priority.
Meanwhile, the testing regime in the United States has been and continues to be a disaster, with many people who want or need a test unable to find out if they're infected. This is largely due to the abject failure of the Trump administration.
The South Korean government has also been more open in sharing information about the virus to the public. As the Washington Post explained: Officials have "undergone aggressive efforts to inform the public about how to respond and where the infection is spreading. South Koreans regularly get cell phone alerts notifying them of new cases near them. The government has shuttered schools and urged the cancellation of all mass gatherings. Government websites are regularly updated with information about testing."
While some of these measures may be understandably unacceptable to the American public — such as the sharing of the GPS location of people who have tested positive for Covid-19 in an app — it shows that greater information sharing can help citizens make better decisions to protect their own health.
And the Daily Beast reported that the public has adopted many of the key social distancing measures that experts believe are necessary to quell the spread of the infection:
Quite aside from the availability of quick, no-cost testing, Dr. Gurel cites the discipline of Koreans in heeding advice of all sorts. “There is a constant message about social hygiene,” he says. Avoidance of public spaces, frequent hand-washing, all that “eventually improved the situation.”
It noted that these steps appear to explain the declining outbreak:
The proof is in the numbers showing new cases in South Korea decreasing steadily–just 110 on Thursday, the lowest in more than two weeks, while 177 were declared cured and sent home. All told, the number of cases totals 7,979, but the general feeling sense is the worst is over.
What shutting down the spread of the virus takes isn't authoritarianism — but competent governance. If the Trump administration can't manage that, it may try to convince that the alternative is unthinkable.