Right-wing media are now circulating a fraudulent argument to defend the Trump administration’s handling of novel coronavirus strain COVID-19, by suggesting there was six months of inaction by the Obama administration on the H1N1 flu, also commonly known as “swine flu,” back in 2009.
Essentially, the right-wing figures now propagating this idea are engaged in a bait-and-switch, in this case using bureaucratic terms of art that everyday people might not pick up on so easily. And even then, they have begun this entire attack with a lie.
On February 28, PJ Media posted an article claiming that after the H1N1 pandemic started in April 2009, “it wasn't until six months later, October, that then-President Obama declared a public health emergency on what was already a pandemic.” The post was picked up and spread further by The Gateway Pundit on February 29 and RedState on March 1. (The idea also spread to the even more fetid swamps of the right-wing online presence, with QAnon conspiracy theorist Dylan Wheeler tweeting about it.)
In fact, this is totally false. The Obama administration declared a public health emergency in April 2009. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano stated at the time that this was a “declaration of emergency preparedness,” explaining, “It’s like declaring one for a hurricane. It means we can release funds and take other measures. The hurricane may not actually hit.”
After the initial declaration of a public health emergency in April 2009, the official national emergency declaration came in October 2009. This also served a specific regulatory purpose by waiving certain federal requirements in order to allow hospitals and local governments to set up alternate treatment sites. And in the interim, the government had been working with researchers on developing a vaccine for the H1N1 strain and to coordinate its launch in the fall.
Now this faulty attack has gotten much bigger exposure, thanks to Sean Hannity — who also apparently tried to revise it slightly. On the March 2 edition of his radio show, Hannity insisted that President Donald Trump’s response to coronavirus has been far superior to the Obama administration’s handling of H1N1. Hannity briefly acknowledged the actual public health emergency declaration, but then placed his emphasis on former President Barack Obama seemingly waiting longer to declare a “national” emergency — at once trying to clean up the problem here, while moving the goalposts in order to keep the attack going.
Later that night, Hannity repeated this whole idea on his Fox News show: “H1N1 … hit the U.S. in April of 2009. It wasn’t until six months later, in October of 2009 — after more than 20,000 Americans were hospitalized, more than a thousand of our fellow citizens died — only then did President Obama and, yeah, quid pro quo Joe declare a national emergency.”
And what were Sean Hannity and other right-wing media figures doing at the time? They were waging a serious misinformation campaign about the H1N1 flu, the vaccine, and the Obama administration’s response to it. For example, radio host Rush Limbaugh speculated that the administration was “hyping the number” of cases in order to “sell health care” — referring to the administration’s efforts to pass the Affordable Care Act.
At the time, Hannity fearmongered that a committee recommendation of the priority list in case of vaccine shortages amounted to government rationing against seniors, which had been a common right-wing scare tactic during the passage of the Affordable Care Act. (In the specific case of the H1N1 flu, seniors were less at risk in comparison to young children.)
And even while warning of vaccine shortages and rationing, Hannity in October 2009 hosted anti-vaccine radio personality Deirdre Imus, who insisted it was “misinformation” that the vaccine was even safe to begin with.
The same month, Limbaugh also publicly boasted that he wasn’t getting the vaccine, defiantly stating, “Screw you, Miss [HHS Secretary Kathleen] Sebelius. I am not going to take it, precisely because you’re now telling me I must.” He also gave voice to conspiracy theories from Louis Farrakhan that the vaccine might have been developed just to kill people.
The H1N1 pandemic was a highly prevalent infection, with a later analysis showing it had infected one in five people worldwide. However, its death rate was very low, estimated at only 0.02% (around 200,000 deaths globally and 12,000 in the United States). By contrast, COVID-19 appears to be much more dangerous among the infected population so far, with a currently estimated mortality rate of 1%.
Trump declared a public health emergency on January 31, which put into effect mandatory quarantines for U.S. citizens returning from certain Chinese provinces. In addition, NBC News reported that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is preparing for an “infectious disease emergency declaration,” which would open up disaster relief funding to state and local governments.
However, the Trump administration has also been faulted for other mistakes in the crisis, such as delays in the testing process, and previous cuts to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In addition, Trump has made statements that contradict experts such as Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.