by John Duffy
The First and Constant Casualty
In April of 2003, I was twenty-two years old. I would have been finishing my senior year of college, and I was living at home with my parents that final semester to save money, so I would have been in the family living room watching TV when I first saw the Jessica Lynch “rescue” footage play out over the cable news. I was hotly against the Iraq war, and I also happened to be finishing a film degree, so watching the gritty night vision footage that was cut up to look like a Hollywood action film, I could sense that something was rotten in Doha.
It was apparently in Doha, Qatar where US and British correspondents were working when they were summoned by White House staff for a big announcement. They had no idea they were about to be presented a piece of fluff, a stage-managed rescue operation of a young American soldier (a GIRL no less!) that was a full on piece of “Go team!”, “We’re number one!”, “Shut up and get on the fucking USA hype train!” propaganda. According to the Guardian:
“A military cameraman had shot footage of the rescue. It was a race against time for the video to be edited. The video presentation was ready a few hours after the first brief announcement. When it was shown, General Vincent Brooks, the US spokesman in Doha, declared: “Some brave souls put their lives on the line to make this happen, loyal to a creed that they know that they’ll never leave a fallen comrade.”
The official story at the time, was that when Lynch’s unit was attacked, she bravely fought back. She was shot, stabbed, and roughed up once taken to hospital by Iraqi soldiers trying to get her to give information. Of course this was all bullshit. It turned out that after her vehicle was shot with an RPG, it crashed, and Lynch was injured. She never fired her weapon, and when taken to hospital, she was treated very well. She had no bullet wounds, no stab wounds, and the Iraq doctors not only kept her alive, one tried to return her to the Americans! Risking his own life, Dr. Harith al-Houssona put Lynch in an Ambulance and tried to deliver her to the American army, but they began firing upon the ambulance as it approached, so he had to quickly turn around and return her to the hospital, where she was kept comfortably until the cameras were ready to roll, and American troops could play hero for the audience back home rescuing one of our beloved troops from a bunch of unarmed doctors.
According to the Guardian, Simon Wren from the British Ministry of defense:
“described the Lynch incident as “hugely overblown” and symptomatic of a bigger problem. “The Americans never got out there and explained what was going on in the war,” he said. “All they needed to be was open and honest. They were too vague, too scared of engaging with the media.” He said US journalists “did not put them under pressure”.
What? US journalists not putting state officials under pressure during a crisis scenario? Get right out of town! It’s almost like this is a recurring problem, no?
We have all heard the expression, “Truth is the first casualty of war,” but I am not sure how many of us revisit this maxim regularly when we respond to what we see in the media when the “war” being covered doesn’t include tanks or choppers or little brown kids waving American flags against the backdrop of their ruined city. For the last year, world governments have been “going to war” against SARS-COV-2, and the media has been their ever faithful servant in this campaign, always highlighting the most terrifying statistics without checking where they came from, or reporting on the most unlikely of outcomes without placing them in context.
Examples of uncritical media abound. For instance, this is from a piece in The Atlantic from December 4th, 2020:
“The health-care system in Iowa is going to collapse, no question,” an infectious-disease doctor told our colleague Ed Yong early last month. The following week, a critical-care doctor in Nebraska warned, “The assumption we will always have a hospital bed for [you] is a false one.”
These catastrophes seem to be coming to pass—not just in Iowa and Nebraska, but all across the country. A national breakdown in hospital care is now starkly apparent in the coronavirus data.”
But then, the healthcare system in Iowa didn’t collapse. It didn’t collapse in Nebraska either. In fact, it didn’t collapse anywhere in the US this winter. According to Worldometers, new cases of Covid19 peaked in Iowa around November 14th, weeks before the Atlantic piece would be released. Had the authors bothered to look at the data, they could have seen that what the expert they were quoting was saying seemed to run contrary to what was unfolding in reality.
The whole piece, ironically enough, starts by talking about how fears of overwhelmed hospitals in the spring never came to pass. But then they go on to insist that this time (meaning winter 2020/2021) it’s different.
“But ominous no longer fits what we’re observing in the data, because calamity is no longer imminent; it is here. The bulk of evidence now suggests that one of the worst fears of the pandemic—that hospitals would become overwhelmed, leading to needless deaths—is happening now.”
As I write this, around the US what we are actually seeing is cases fall. SARS-COV-2 seems to behave according to some variation of Farr’s Law, which is basically the idea that cases rise and fall roughly symmetrically during an epidemic. And it is pretty obvious at this point, that the rise and fall of Covid19 cases is seasonal, which is not surprising, because this happens every single year with other coronaviruses, as well as other respiratory viruses.
But the authors of the Atlantic piece didn’t feel any hesitation in printing worst case scenarios and stating emphatically that doom was nigh. Because as journalists, if they are quoting someone else, citing an expert’s opinion, they can always wash their hands of it all if they are proven wrong only one short month later. “We didn’t say that,” they could claim in defense. Of course, they didn’t find any counterbalancing opinion either. They didn’t do the basic research to find out if what they were printing actually made any actual sense. That bit of research would undermine the whole thesis of the piece. It would take an exciting, adrenaline inducing ride through the more frightening possible futures, and turn it into something calm and seated in boring old information. The Atlantic needs clicks, baby! They need more fucking eyeballs, and scaring people shitless that Nana won’t have a hospital bed is bound to have them sharing, forwarding, retweeting!
Hospitals going tits-up stories have been all the rage this winter, and likely the most famous examples in the US have come out of L.A. county. It started in the summer actually, when in June the LA Times reported:
“With a predicted increase in hospitalizations, for the first time since the coronavirus crisis seemed to ease locally, L.A. County is now projecting the possibility of running out of hospital beds in two to three weeks. Likewise, the number of intensive care unit beds could be exhausted sometime in July.”
ICU beds never were exhausted, but that didn’t stop the same refrain from being repeated as winter arrived. We see this quote in an article from the LA Times about Southern California’s ICU capacity dropping to zero percent:
“There are simply not enough trained staff to care for the volume of patients that are projected to come and need care,” Dr. Christina Ghaly, the county’s director of health services, said. “Our hospitals are under siege, and our model shows no end in sight.”
The article, to be fair, does explain that there is a thing called ‘“surge capacity,” which means the hospital can expand ICU capacity if needed. But only one media outlet in Southern California that I could find explained exactly how ICU capacity was actually calculated. The OC Register did the real work, and wrote:
“In the context of the coronavirus pandemic’s bleakest chapter, the state Department of Public Health’s front-and-center metric, “current ICU capacity by region,” takes the actual percentage of remaining adult ICU beds each day and tweaks it to reflect the lopsided share of COVID-19 patients in intensive care compared to others…”
Tweaks it, you say? Please, go on!
“…the state’s calculation hinges on an ideal that no more than a third of a region’s intensive care patients have COVID-19. If more than 30% of ICU beds are in use by COVID-19 patients in a county, or the region as a whole, it’s reported available ICU capacity is reduced by half a percentage point for each percentage point over that threshold.
For example, 9.2% of Orange County’s staffed adult ICU beds were available by Friday, Dec. 18, according to the OC Health Care Agency. But because 57% of the county’s 628 active ICU beds were taken by coronavirus patients – well above the state’s 30% limit – Orange County’s capacity was downgraded to 0%.
An absolute zero might give the wrong impression, because Orange County’s ICUs still had a meager 59 vacant adult beds, according to a county report.”
So zero doesn’t actually mean zero. And when they hit zero they go into surge mode. But please, never mind the details, let’s get to the big bloody headline about overrun hospitals and how any day now, ANY DAY NOW, the doctors and nurses will all just fall to their knees and wail as the Covid patients have to be stacked like cordwood to accommodate the never ending influx of bodies.
Interestingly, if one just googles LA County Hospital Data, they find this link. And if you open the pdf, you can scroll down and see this Covid19 ICU equation in action.
You can see that total hospital occupancy was higher in July than it was in winter. You can also see that they never went to zero beds available.
Look, I am not trying to say that hospital administrators shouldn’t always have operational plans for disasters and worst case scenarios. I am also not suggesting that during a winter surge in illness that the workload of doctors and nurses cannot become intensely stressful. But they know this, they expect it. And if the media scares the Dickens out of the public, that can have real world consequences for health if people who do need to go to the hospital choose not to do so because they are afraid of not getting service, or even if they are terrified of catching a virus. When the dust settles on the Covid era, we will certainly find many cases of people who died from heart attacks and strokes because they did not go and get immediate treatment.
And it’s not just hospital numbers. It’s supposed “wards full of children,” in the UK, (which was fortunately corrected quite quickly), it’s stories of “more infectious strains” (this is an early one from July of 2020 that never really caught fire), it’s the “healthy-mid-fifties-guy,” former cyclist, suffering “long covid,” who way down in the article you find out suffered previous pulmonary conditions and was vented for a week when he went to hospital, kind of making the whole scare story a “no duh.”
The author of the Guardian article I linked above about the rescue of Jessica Lynch wrote:
“That American approach – to skim over the details – focusing instead on the broad message, led to tension behind the scenes with the British.”
That phrase captures it so well, “skimming over the details and focusing instead on the broad message.” The “war on covid” has been rife with this kind of shameful reporting, and sadly there will be no consequences. It doesn’t matter if reporters are wrong as long as they stay on the narrative, a narrative that they insist is true despite the consistent plaque of inconsistencies, flaws, and outright factual errors that buttress the entire thing to begin with. It’s all become a big show at this point, no longer with the goal being an educated and informed public who can make could personal and political choices, but rather to keep everyone falling in line, to keep them compliant, to keep them quiet about their year of losses financial, social, emotional, physical, and beyond.