America needs to hear the bad news first

The pandemic highlights the thin line between optimism and denial

Boris Johnson and President Trump.
(Image credit: Illustrated | Getty Images, iStock)

There's good news and there's bad news. Which do you want to hear first?

It might sound strange — maybe even un-American — but when it comes to the pandemic, I've been yearning lately for the bad news. It's not that I'm a defeatist or a pessimist, but I've become wary of too-good-to-be-true news. Miracle cures and promises of imminent vaccines have become life rafts for pandemic deniers who are unwilling to face the truth that things are going to be bad for a long time. That isn't about the glass being half-empty: it's about accepting reality. And we are long overdue for our leaders to take off the kid gloves and start telling it like it is.

On Monday, hours before Johns Hopkins University recorded the 200,000th confirmed American death from COVID-19, President Trump addressed a mostly maskless crowd of supporters and told them that the coronavirus pandemic "affects virtually nobody." The president, who has been recorded admitting to intentionally playing down the pandemic, stands out among democratically-elected world leaders for his sunny — and frequently misleading — spin on the outbreak. By contrast, U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson had a gloomy forecast for his country on Tuesday, announcing that the nation has reached "a perilous turning point" in the resurgence of the virus and that new restrictions on social interaction could "remain in place for perhaps six months," with "significantly greater restrictions" to follow if deemed necessary.

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While I'd obviously rather live in a country where the pandemic genuinely affected virtually nobody, we know that isn't true; Johnson's description of his country's second wave, with colder months looming, is far more accurate, and hearing him tell his people the hard truth was, frankly, refreshing. On this side of the Atlantic, new models predict that at least another 200,000 Americans could die between now and the end of the year, while the coming flu season could further deplete resources and available hospital beds. Some best estimates — which are included in an impressive new analysis of the months ahead by the health publication STAT — predict life won't go back to any kind of maskless normal until "at least 2022," and that's if a vaccine campaign kicks off in earnest by the start of next year.

Trump, of course, has every reason to try to make things sound better than they are: he has an election to win in November, after all. But experts warn that "attempts to paint a rosier picture of the situation could make it worse," STAT reports. "If politicians prematurely declare victory, it sends the message that people no longer need to wear masks or distance from others" — something that is already happening, as evidenced by Trump's guidance-flaunting supporters. His administration rarely shares what might be considered bad news, opting instead to claim, in contradiction to CDC testimony, that a vaccine will be ready to distribute by next month. As Tom Inglesby, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, told STAT, "It's really important for leaders not to sugarcoat things when they are not going well." Lives depend on it.

But our eagerness for good news at the expense of being realistic is bigger than anything manufactured by this administration; Trump, rather, is only playing to what is an inherently American tendency toward optimism, as my colleague Damon Linker has written. Most of us have never lived through a crisis of this magnitude, and it can seem impossible, in our otherwise relatively safe lives, that this is really happening. Sometimes we absolutely need to cling to good news for our mental health's sake (although that usually means one has a realistic understanding of the bad parts, too). There are also grimmer explanations for why so much of our population does not seem to engage with the bad news: They just don't care. As The Atlantic has compellingly argued, "Part of the reason this majority-white, majority-non-elderly country has been so blasé about COVID-19 deaths is that mostly Black people and old people are dying." Whatever the reason, though, at this point we've basically "cocooned ourselves from bad news, like we've trained ourselves to guard against SARS-2," as STAT puts it.

But by virtue of this being a global health crisis, bad news usually means we're at least getting told the facts straight. This isn't to advocate for despair; no one is suggesting throwing up our hands and resigning ourselves to the fact that people who don't need to die are tragically going to. It's not even to speak out against optimism, which differs from denial in that it involves trusting in scientists and doctors to do their jobs and finding safe ways to live while preventing the spread of the disease. In that regard, I am an optimist. But asking our leaders to tell us the bad along with the eventual good is simply to ask for the truth, however unsavory and unwanted it may be to hear.

So what is the good news, then? It's that we know that COVID-19 isn't going to be a crisis forever. This pandemic does have an end — one that, if we are all level-headed and face up to reality, will come even sooner.

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