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Commentary: The echo chamber of ignorance and the effort to persuade people to stay home

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Beachgoers in Clearwater Beach, Fla., try to keep a safe distance from each other during the coronavirus outbreak. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)

For over a decade, I have had the opportunity to work for one of the oldest organizations of centrist Republicans in the United States.

The organization is called the Ripon Society. Founded in 1962, it was established on the campus of Harvard University by students who supported civil rights and sought to counter the growing influence of the John Birch Society within the GOP.

While the influence of the Ripon Society has clearly risen and fallen over the years, the one consistent hallmark of the organization has been its belief that the Republican Party should always try to promote a positive message — one that is geared toward bringing people together, rather than driving people apart.

Over the past week, though, the Ripon Society has been trying to do just the opposite. Instead of putting out a message that appeals to the hopes and dreams of the American people, we have been putting out a message that uses facts to tap into their fears. In short, we have been trying to scare the hell out of them. In both our Twitter posts and messages on Facebook, we have been attempting to warn people of the clear and present danger posed by the coronavirus, and why it is so imperative that they stay home.

Initially, these posts and messages came in the form of news reports out of Northern Italy that many Americans may not have seen or read. “107 patients have died of coronavirus in this hospital out of 845 admitted,” stated this March 16 report out of Cremona. “While the elderly are more vulnerable, young people are also getting the virus.” Another report dated March 18 quoted the mayor of hard-hit Bergamo and was even more ominous. “Unfortunately,” the mayor stated, “Italy has now become a model for other countries. Now others must realize that they can no longer go out and dance, and instead have to adopt tough measures. ... Make sure that people stop meeting each other and keep their distance. Make good use of the time you still have left.”

In recent days, the reports we have been posting out of Italy have been replaced by reports that are closer to home. “I have patients in their early 40s and, yeah, I was kind of shocked,” a medical worker in New Orleans is quoted as saying in a March 21 report by ProPublica. “I’m seeing people who look relatively healthy with a minimal health history, and they are completely wiped out, like they’ve been hit by a truck. This is knocking out what should be perfectly fit, healthy people. Patients will be on minimal support, on a little bit of oxygen, and then all of a sudden, they go into complete respiratory arrest, shut down and can’t breathe at all.”

We also posted a similar account by a hospitalized 26-year old resident of New York. “Millennials, if you can’t be good allies, at least stay home to protect yourselves,” the young woman wrote in the March 23 New York Times. “Our invulnerability to this disease is a myth — one I have experienced firsthand. … I wish individuals weren’t facing such a high burden of responsibility, but in the absence of early and appropriate action from our government, we have no other choice. Now is the time to walk the talk. There is much about our society that we are inheriting that we can’t control. Let’s try to make an impact where we can.”

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By posting these and other accounts on our social media pages, that is exactly what the Ripon Society is trying to do — make an impact where we can. In doing so, we are trying to counter the voices that have been found on cable news and social media over the past few months that have been trying to understate the danger posed by the coronavirus, comparing it to the seasonal flu and equating it to the threat we face from accidents on America’s highways and roads. Make no mistake — these voices constitute an echo chamber of ignorance in America, and they are going to get Americans killed.

The good news is that America has other voices that have provided a clear picture of the challenges we face in the months ahead, and the sacrifices we will all be asked to make as a result. These voices include governors like Andrew Cuomo of New York and Larry Hogan of Maryland, who, along with a number of other governors, have provided steady and decisive leadership to the people of their respective states. These voices also include Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who has provided the country with straight talk at a time when the federal government seems to be having difficulty getting things straight.

The other good news is that — the current difficulties in Washington aside — America is well-equipped to meet this threat. Despite the economic meltdown, we remain the wealthiest nation in the world, with the world’s best medical professionals as well. We are also better positioned to work remotely than we ever have been before.

With Congress passing an economic stimulus package that will help millions of people do just that, the top priority for every American is simple — stay home and stay healthy.

At this time of fear and uncertainty, that is a positive message we all can, and should, embrace.

Lou Zickar is the editor of The Ripon Forum, a centrist Republican journal of political thought and opinion published by The Ripon Society.

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