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Elon Musk is dangerously wrong about the novel coronavirus


For months, Elon Musk has been spreading doubt, confusion, and outright misinformation about the deadliest pandemic of our time.


Since the outbreak began, he’s promoted studies that suggest doctors are inflating case numbers for financial reasons, or that the vast majority of fatalities in Italy are due to other causes. He promoted a widely discredited paper on the benefits of chloroquine, which was debunked so quickly that both Twitter and Google Docs refused to host it. In another instance, he compared the outbreak to the common cold. On March 6th, he said simply “the coronavirus panic is dumb.” On March 14th, he said the “danger of panic still far exceeds danger of corona,” as part of a larger thread promoting chloroquine as an effective treatment. On March 19th, he predicted that the US would see close to zero new cases by the end of April. (The US is currently registering more than 25,000 new cases each day, a number itself limited by testing capacity.)


Musk has not entirely dismissed the dangers of the outbreak, recommending that people stay home while displaying symptoms and that the elderly self-isolate. But those measures are far weaker than the prevailing public health guidance, and the overall picture is clear. In every discussion, Musk has taken the side doubting the threat posed by the novel coronavirus and applauded the lifting of restrictions.


Most recently, Musk’s vigorous skepticism has led him to promote medical misinformation. On Sunday, he shared a briefing by two Bakersfield doctors who argued that all distancing restrictions should be lifted immediately, claiming that the ongoing outbreak is no worse than a common case of influenza. The claims were quickly and emphatically condemned by a range of medical groups, and YouTube has since removed the video for violating its community guidelines. But Musk has not dexed his tweet, which reads, “doctors make good points.”

This skepticism has also directly impacted Musk’s stewardship of Tesla. The company’s Fremont factory is subject to an ongoing public health closure from Alameda County, but Tesla has defied that order twice: first, keeping the factory open for five days after the order was issued, then calling certain employees back to the factory last week. (The company eventually backed down on the second case.) Thus far, the company has avoided any serious repercussions for skirting the public health rules, but there’s no guarantee that luck will hold. It’s easy to imagine a regulatory backlash, or worse, an outbreak among factory workers. Musk is playing an incredibly risky game — and after reading his tweets, it’s hard to believe he has a clear-eyed sense of those risks.


Musk has a combative relationship with his critics — both in the press and in the business world. He’s behaved recklessly in the past and gotten away relatively clean, whether it was his abortive bid to take Tesla private or bizarre feud with a rescue worker in Thailand. But there is more at stake this time, and Musk’s bizarre Twitter habits are more troubling. We desperately need clear-headed guidance from as many corners as possible. And every time Musk spreads misinformation, the hard task of recovery gets a little harder.