Joe Rogan hosted Tesla CEO Elon Musk on the May 7 edition of his podcast The Joe Rogan Experience in which both host and guest repeatedly spread misinformation related to the global coronavirus crisis and minimized the deaths resulting from it. Musk has previously dabbled in coronavirus conspiracy theories on Twitter, called social distancing efforts states have enacted to curb the spread of the virus “fascist,” and is currently threatening to pull Tesla headquarters out of California if the state does not ease the restrictions.
Toward the end of an almost 2-hour long interview, Musk and Rogan discussed the global pandemic. Musk claimed the COVID-19 mortality rate is “much lower” than what is being reported -- a conspiracy theory already popular among right-wing media. Musk also claimed, “It’s almost like people really wanted a panic.”
In reality, data shows the number of COVID-related deaths in the U.S. is likely an undercount. The global death count is also likely an undercount “due to limited testing and problems in the attribution of the cause of death,” according to Our World in Data, a collaborative data project between the University of Oxford and the non-profit organization Global Change Data Lab.
Musk accused doctors and hospital administrators of overcounting COVID-19 deaths for financial gain, saying doctors in many hospitals are currently faced with the decision to either put a patient “on a ventilator for five minutes” and receive a larger reimbursement or be forced to “fire some doctors.”
Emergency grant funds are being distributed to hospitals “according to their historical share of revenue from the Medicare program for seniors -- not according to their coronavirus burden.” And while Medicare does reimburse hospitals a larger amount for COVID-19 cases and deaths, there is no evidence that hospitals are engaged in fraudulent reporting.
Musk also claimed that any patient who dies in a hospital with “COVID like symptoms” is considered to have died of COVID-19. But, he said, the list of COVID-19 symptoms is “a mile long. So … if you’re ill at all, it’s like it could be COVID.” In reality, what is counted as a death caused by COVID-19 varies significantly by state.
It’s possible, though unclear because of his vague language, that Musk is referring to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendation “to add Covid-19 as a ‘presumed’ cause of death even if the diagnosis is not confirmed by a test” -- a strategy developed due to a lack of widespread testing. The New York Times reports, “Public health officials across the country say that even with the additional ‘presumed’ classifications on death certificates, the actual toll is probably much higher.”
Rogan claimed that the coronavirus is “so popular that we’ve forgotten people die of pneumonia every day.” He then compared deaths from COVID-19 to deaths from swimming, smoking cigarettes, and driving, ignoring the fact that none of these factors are transmittable viral infections passed from person to person. Rogan also claimed that the focus on COVID-19 is resulting in people forgetting that pneumonia and flu are still killing people, ignoring that COVID-19 is a new and highly contagious disease that can be passed asymptomatically and that there is no vaccine for the new coronavirus like there are for influenza.
Musk also minimized the impact of the lives lost to COVID-19, saying that the “right metric to use” is to see “how many life years were lost.” He said, “If somebody dies when they’re 20 and could have lived until 80, they lost 60 years. But if somebody dies when they’re 80 and they might have lived to 81, they’ve lost one year.”