The Coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan, China, has been designated a public health emergency of international concern. The doctor who first reported the virus, 219-nCoV, died from the disease.

The political polarization in Washington presents a challenge. Will a recent history of conflicting and inconsistent messages from elected officials make it difficult for citizens to trust pronouncements from the federal government? Put more bluntly, will President Trump’s record of erroneous statements cause liberals to reject information? Will critiques of the Democrats’ motives in the impeachment episode have a similar impact with conservatives?

The anthrax cases in 2001 taught how easily the U.S. government can lose its credibility. Initial statements proved to be erroneous. Two months into that crisis a national poll for the Harvard School of Public Health showed that nearly twice as many people would trust state or local officials as would trust federal officials to tell them about the risks of anthrax. The “local fire chief” had almost twice the credibility as the director of Homeland Security. And the fire chief was trusted more than the director of the Centers for Disease Control and the US Surgeon General, according to the 2001 poll.

Kelsey Piper noted how credibility can affect the public response to a crisis. Piper wrote in on February 7, 2020, the following:

Trust in the government affects people’s willingness to follow public health recommendations, and affects their perception of how well the government is handling an epidemic.

Distrust of the government can take several forms: believing the government response is unnecessary, or believing it’s insufficient. There are examples of both. During the 2009 swine flu outbreak under the Obama administration, Republicans were more likely (50 percent versus 35 percent) to say that the government was overstating the risk, and less likely (41 percent versus 60 percent) to say they’d get vaccinated.

Later in Obama’s presidency, the widely covered Ebola outbreak saw similarly large partisan divides in opinion — but in the opposite direction. Forty-nine percent of Republicans reported worry about Ebola, compared to 36 percent of Democrats. Later in Obama’s presidency, 67 percent of Democrats said they had confidence the government could prevent the spread of Ebola, while 41 percent of Republicans said the same.

This is kind of weird. Your political affiliation is a reasonably strong predictor of whether a disease outbreak scares you. But it’s not straightforward that Republicans worry more than Democrats or vice versa, or that the party out of power worries more due to distrust of the government (or worries less because it’s expecting the government to be overstating the problem). So what’s going on?

Polls about preoccupation over Ebola found that initially people of either political party were similarly concerned. But over time, Republicans became more concerned and Democrats didn’t — largely due to different media environments. So maybe the best picture is this: we start out with pretty much the same views on foreign health crises, which after all, have no reason to be a partisan issue. But over time, because we read different media and listen to different authorities, opinions diverge, which is then reinforced by tribalism — producing a divided public less likely to get vaccines or listen to public health measures.

Let’s end with some good news: this doesn’t seem to have happened yet with the coronavirus. The first public polling about coronavirus fears — an NPR/PBS/Marist poll released Tuesday — found that 63 percent of Democrats and 57 percent of Republicans were “very concerned” about the spread of coronavirus in the US.

Those are basically indistinguishable numbers. I’ll be curious, over the next few weeks, if it stays that way — or if coronavirus goes the same way as so many other ostensibly neutral topics, becoming overwhelmingly the concern of one party or the other. Here’s hoping we can hold things together and address public health emergencies as one country.

– Kelsey Piper, @kelseytuoc

Skepticism can be healthy, but no one ever talks about a “healthy cynicism.” The best source of information is the Centers for Disease Control. The federal CDC provides good information. But don’t expect Washington to save you. Local activities can save lives.

Encouraging volunteer activity in a nationwide pandemic may become essential for providing care to persons sheltering in their homes. Not enough attention has been given about how to encourage and coordinate it on the community level. Most likely, people would self-organize activities and adapt to changing conditions. Such initiatives can pay big dividends but there are risks to responders.

In most crises there are victims, survivors and rescuers. Curiously, the survivors sometimes think and behave like victims. The transformation to a more productive outlook occurs when one becomes a rescuer. Helping others helps the one giving help. Those who recover from a bout with the flu will have lower risk of re-infection and can seize the opportunity to assist others.

The National Center for Critical Incident Analysis has been in a state of “watchful waiting” for another killer pandemic or a deadly bioterrorism attack. We were very active before and during the pandemic of 2009 but many of our founders have been busy with other concerns recently.

Chairman Emeritus Frank Ochberg and our current chair, Ford Rowan, have been working on problems in the Middle East as members of the International Dialogue Initiative, an effort to understand the psychological barriers to peacemaking and to encourage dialogue. The IDI has held numerous meeting — the most recent in Vienna in late 2019 — to discuss the war with ISIS, the refugee crisis, relations between Israelis and Palestinians, the failed coup in Turkey, and the transition in governments in the US and Europe. For more on the IDI click here:

While the NCCIA has not been actively working on pandemic preparations we have been watching with growing concern the danger of a large bioterror attack. This danger was highlighted In a conference in February 2017 in Munich. Several government officials echoed the warnings of Bill Gates advocating greater preparedness about bioterrorism. Here’s a link to the Washington Post article.

We will post other articles and comments as the Coronavirus illness spreads.