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.

The Coronavirus Outbreak

  • Answers to your most common questions:

    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.