In March 2020, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the foremost infectious disease expert in the United States, quickly became a controversial figure whose audience was clearly divided on political leanings. It was known either as a reliable source or as a "catastrophe". Much of the criticism he received was directly related to the Trump administration's disdain for health protocols and skepticism about security measures such as closed infrastructure and mandatory masking.
And although the majority of Americans have been vaccinated today and are ready to let go of any Covid-19-related news, Fauci is under fire again.
As early as March 2020, thousands of Fauci's personal and business emails were posted to BuzzFeed and the Washington Post through a Freedom of Information Act request filed by various news outlets. Within hours of this posting, #FauciLeaks and #FauciGate were all the rage on Twitter, amid a rush of social media conspiracy theories from Covid-19 deniers who used the emails as evidence they were right all along. To be clear, no emails were leaked; they were obtained through federal law access.
Aside from countless false claims about the virus and the habit of downplaying its public health risks, the Trump administration has created a narrative where day-to-day activities could and should continue. In October 2020, Aaron Rupar of Vox wrote:
"Trump’s rhetoric is not only irresponsible, he also holds rallies that ridicule his own government's recommended guidelines for social distancing and masking. And these rallies seem to be actively worsening the pandemic by spreading the virus. "
Even if Trump is not in office, the country remains country highly polarized, and Trump's influence on public discourse has proven to be lasting. According to the Washington Post, (Fauci) was "a counterpoint for Trump supporters who seemed to undermine the president at every turn, while others viewed him as a reassuring voice of reason". This pent-up aggression is part of what made email posting such a big deal. The email posting gave conservatives a chance to get a glimpse of the person they scapegoated and the fodder they needed to spread false information.
Countless Trump-supporting Republican politicians have taken use the moment to stir up resentment and fill their coffers. Among them, Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) was a leader in spreading misinformation through the Fauci emails. On June 3, he tweeted “FAUCI lied” and added a link to his fundraising website.
It's time to fire Fauci! Emails now published under the Freedom of Information Act reveal two very important things:
1. FAUCI lied
2. I was right all along
Stand with me today as we continue to show the way: https://t.co/B42p8TpuXz https://t.co/k5rWif6erb
– Rand Paul (@DrRandPaul) June 2, 2021
This is not the first time social media has exaggerated something Covid-related or helped spread misinformation. So what did those emails that the Conservatives clung to actually say?
Anti-maskers have been looking for evidence that masks don't work
One of the biggest points of contention during the pandemic, especially among right-wing Americans, was the mandate to wear masks. An email addressing this was held up as evidence that Fauci knew masks were ineffective and prescribed them anyway.
In early February 2020, Fauci received an email from a woman asking if she should wear a mask when traveling. He replied on February 5: “Masks are really intended for infected people to prevent them from spreading infection to uninfected people, rather than protecting uninfected people from infection. The typical mask you buy at a drugstore isn't really effective at keeping viruses out. "
In February and early March 2020, Anything to do with Covid was unclear even to health professionals, and a leading line of discourse was that Americans shouldn't wear masks because they weren't considered effective at filtering out virus particles shed by others. Although this information continues to be believed to be accurate – with the exception of hospital-grade masks, the N95 and KN95 respirators, which are much more effective – it was eventually found that encouraging everyone to wear masks helped actively prevent those who are infected Virus particles so easily transmitted to others.
Attempts have also been made to deter the panic-driven public from buying all the masks available and putting health workers at risk of running out of supplies. In an interview with The Street on June 12, Fauci said, “The public health community – and many people said so – were concerned that it was at a time when personal protective equipment, including the N95 masks and surgical masks, was in Use was very scarce. "
During a June 3 CNN interview on the emails, Fauci reiterated that if he had all the information he had today, his advice at the start of the pandemic would be drastically different and that masks actually work.
But it doesn't look like Fauci's statement will soften the backlash. After a year and a half of anti-mask protests, it is treated as a an "I told you so" moment for conservative Americans, and they make the most of it.
As more Americans get vaccinated, the wearing of masks will decrease, but interestingly, it will likely remain a political symbol. Anna North of Vox reported, "If people like Trump don't wear masks and make wearing masks a political issue, their supporters are less likely to wear them." It follows that when people like Fauci wear a mask and are involved, Propose rules for wearing, the same people waiting for an opportunity to prove him wrong.
The Wuhan Laboratory's Conspiracy Theory
Trump notoriously referred to Covid-19 as the "Chinese virus," a statement that has led to more hatred against Asians. Sixty percent of adults believe discrimination against Asian Americans has increased year over year, according to an AP poll conducted between April 29 and May 3. Trump's wording has also led to false accusations, such as his claim that the coronavirus was coronavirus created in China's Wuhan Institute of Virology and deliberately spread to the rest of the world. Few reputable sources, including Fauci, consider this likely.
But if anything, this increased response to one of the emails posted titled "Thank you for your public comments on the origins of COVID-19". The email from Peter Daszak, the CEO of a non-profit organization called the EcoHealth Alliance that has been researching the origins of the coronavirus and has worked with the Wuhan Virus Lab in the past, stated, “I just wanted to say thank you personally on behalf of our employees and staff for standing up publicly and stating that the scientific evidence shows a natural origin of COVID-19 from a bat spill over humans rather than a laboratory clearance from the Wuhan Institute of Virology. "
Fauci also received an email from Kristian Andersen, a professor of immunology and microbiology at Scripps Research, suggesting that the virus could potentially be tampered with. Anderson wrote, "The virus' unusual features make up a very small part of the genome, so one has to look very carefully at all of the sequences to see that some of the features (possibly) look as designed."
Much like the mask-related emails, these emails played in narratives that Republican politicians and their supporters had immortalized since the beginning of the pandemic. According to Politico, "Theories about a leak from the virology lab in Wuhan became a persistent issue for Republican lawmakers last spring and soon became a mainstay of Congressional hearings and increasingly controversial exchanges between Fauci and (Sen. Rand) Paul."
In April 2020, Dr. Francis Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health, sent Fauci an email with the subject "Conspiracy Gaining Pace". Aside from a link to an article about the possibilities for Covid-19 to be created in a laboratory, the news is completely blacked out. This particular email has become a lightning rod because of the editorial work and has led conspiracy theorists to believe that Fauci may be under investigation. In fact, MP Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) sent a letter to President Joe Biden on June 4, requesting an investigation into whether Fauci was involved in an alleged cover-up of the virus's potential origins.
In his June 3 interview with CNN, Fauci reiterated that he still believes the most likely origin of Covid-19 is "a leap of the species," but said he was determined to stay open-minded and recommended to others to do the same.
Conservative Americans want to discredit Fauci, whether it makes sense or not
Amid all of the confusion and frustration the pandemic has created, many Americans are looking for someone to blame. Everyone has suffered, whether from the loss of a loved one to the virus, being laid off, or simply from a canceled trip.
While many liberals blame Trump's erratic speeches and refusal to follow health guidelines for a failed response to the virus, they are the same People who are more likely to read the e-mails and feel empowered in their support through the interior view of Fauci's work.
On the other hand, for many conservatives, Fauci was an obstacle, or worse, a villain looking to turn the Trump agenda upside down. His advice to stay home, keep your distance and wear a mask got in the way of Trump's message about reopening the economy and returning to normal.
Fauci's emails have confirmed, if anything, how divided the country still is. On Sunday, CBS News published a poll in which 33 percent of Republicans but only 10 percent of Democrats say they won't get the vaccine if it is available to them, a potential ongoing influence of Trump's rhetoric. Interestingly, according to the same survey, six in ten of those who say they won't get vaccinated also say mask and social distancing requirements aren't effective in controlling the spread of the virus, which is further in line with this rhetoric. As Zeeshan Aleem reported from Vox,
Throughout his presidency, Trump ignored and downplayed the severity of the pandemic and spread misinformation and disinformation about Covid-19. This, in turn, has contributed to distrust of the vaccine or the belief that Covid-19 is simply not a serious problem for many of its supporters.
Fauci's published emails have received a lot of attention and criticism, but by June 5, 50 percent of Americans had at least one dose of coronavirus vaccine. So the emails are just a look back at the beginning of the pandemic and not so much the “gotcha” moment some believe.