When the coronavirus was in its nascent stages, at least in the U.S., some people who should know better came out to assure Americans that the fear is worse than the disease. Erstwhile presidential candidate Andrew Yang, law professor and Obama administration official Cass Sunstein, and titan of industry Elon Musk all uttered versions of the ultimately content-free phrase.
Now, as the death toll from COVID-19 rises — more than 400 Italians are dying each day, and the numbers are rising relentlessly across the United States — most of those who assured us our “fear” or “panic” were worse than a highly contagious illness that kills 1% to 4% of its victims seem to have shut up.
Not Elon Musk, though.
In an email to his more than 50,000 Tesla employees, obtained by The Washington Times, Mr. Musk continued to downplay the seriousness of the coronavirus. He also engaged in a multiday standoff with elected leaders. Even as Fremont, California, site of the electric car maker’s headquarters, was in mandatory lockdown, Mr. Musk continued to operate his HQ and factory for several days. Only on Thursday afternoon did he deign to follow the law and shutter the plant.
“First … if you feel the slightest bit ill or even uncomfortable, do not feel obligated to come to work,” he wrote in the internal email. “I will personally be at work, but that’s just me.” This was in direct violation of Alameda County’s lockdown order, which prohibits “non-essential gatherings of any size.” It also was deeply irresponsible, given that even people not suffering from symptoms can transmit the virus to others.
“My frank opinion remains that the harm from the coronavirus panic far exceeds that of the virus itself,” he said. “What the COVID-19 coverage does show is that the danger of colds and flu in general can be high for the elderly, especially those with prior lung damage.” This is a dangerous non sequitur — COVID-19 is far deadlier than seasonal influenza, by a factor of about 10.
Even worse, he later wrote “My best guess, for what it’s worth, based on Centers for Disease Control data, is that confirmed COVID-19 (this specific form of the common cold) cases will not exceed 0.1% of the population.”
This is stunning; COVID-19 is not a “form of the common cold.” It is far deadlier than a cold, and we are also beginning to see cases where even those who have recovered from it are suffering from seriously reduced lung capacity. Needless to say, that is not a concern with the common cold. (Not to mention, projections seem to suggest that far more than 0.1% of the population will be struck with the illness.)
“Nevertheless, as mentioned above, please do not feel obligated to come to work if this is causing you any concern,” he concluded. “I’d rather you were at home and not stressed, than at work and worried.” It was a generous offer from a boss who had just spent hundreds of words minimizing the thread that COVID-19 presents to his workers.
Perhaps Mr. Musk has his reasons for being more blase than many of us. Have I mentioned that he owns a rocket ship company capable of lifting him off the Earth?
• Ethan Epstein is editorial editor of The Washington Times. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ethanepstiiiine.
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