Fact check: Disease outbreaks don't occur just in U.S. major election years
The claim: Every election year has a disease.
Does a connection exist between election years and the emergence of new epidemics?
A viral meme has been circulating on various social media sites, including Facebook, Reddit and Twitter. The meme depicts a whiteboard seen at an unidentified doctor’s office. Another version appears like a mural, with a speech bubble containing information.
On the board or mural are listed various diseases next to the dates of American presidential and congressional midterm elections. The diseases listed are SARS 2004, Avian 2008, Swine 2010, MERS 2012, Ebola 2014, Zika 2016, Ebola 2018 and Corona 2020.
The whiteboard version also includes "facts" that say COVID-19 is not particularly lethal.
“This is such a stretch,” said Kathleen Brown, professor of public health at the University of Tennessee. “There were outbreaks during years of elections but there were also outbreaks in years where there were not elections.”
“The author of this (meme) is not telling the whole story,” Brown said.
The list of diseases is misleading.
SARS, for example, emerged in February 2003, which was not a presidential or congressional election year, and by July 2003 the World Health Organization declared SARS was contained. A trickle of cases continued into May 2004. Only eight people in the United States caught SARS and none died. SARS was given only a passing mention on the Republican Party platform and was not a major election issue.
Avian 2008 likely refers to avian flu. The most prevalent avian flu viruses, H5N1 and H9N2, have been detected in both humans and birds for over a decade. Outbreaks of these strains have been tracked as far back as the 1990s to poultry markets in Hong Kong. The WHO reports that periodic outbreaks or isolated cases of H5N1 have persisted since 1996 at low levels more or less uninterrupted.
The biggest victims of avian flu are livestock birds. Millions of chickens and geese have been culled in response to avian flu. But it was never an election issue. The disease is mentioned passingly in the 2008 Democratic Party platform as an issue needing international cooperation in Asia.
The other diseases listed fare similarly when subjected to scrutiny.
Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, or MERS, emerged in 2012, but major outbreaks did not occur until 2015 and 2018. Neither outbreak occurred particularly close to major American elections and most cases were tied directly to human contact with camels. Human-to-human transmission happened only in rare circumstances.
Ebola did not first emerge in 2014. Periodic outbreaks of Ebola have been documented since 1976.
Zika, similarly, was first detected in humans in Tanzania in 1952, and slowly spread along the equatorial Pacific until it reached Brazil in 2015.
Swine flu peaked in 2009; it spread during normal flu season.
“It’s essentially trying to draw a link there that is tenuous at best,” said Sephen Kissler, a postdoctoral immunology researcher at Harvard. He said if the idea is that these illnesses were engineered to align with election years, then “they didn’t do a very good job of doing it.”
While Zika and the 2014-16 Ebola outbreak were both mentioned by politicians, in neither case was the disease response brandished as a referendum on the government.
The spread of Zika was a research funding issue that crossed party lines. Ebola was wrapped up in broader boarder security or health care funding arguments.
Are outbreaks, elections related?
The other side of the board lists several claims about COVID-19’s lethality and infectivity. It ends with a statement that COVID-19 is being promoted to manipulate the 2020 elections. The implication is that there is a historic trend of attempting to manipulate election results by fomenting panic regarding diseases.
"Coronavirus has a contagion factor of 2. SARS was 4. Measles is 18," the meme states.
This meme understates the transmissibility of COVID-19. The number of new cases an average carrier might infect is between 2.5-3.5. This is called the reproduction number, not the “contagion factor.”
“The underlying narrative that they are saying here is that COVID is not as bad because its not as contagious,” said Kissler, the immunology researcher. “That’s conflating clinical severity with transmissibility, which is not a useful measure of how severe an illness is.”
Kissler explained that Ebola, which can kill 20%-40% of patients depending on the strain, is highly severe but not very transmissible. It has a low reproduction number, but it’s still a serious illness.
The meme also depicts a high recovery rate for COVID-19 patients younger than 50, at "99.7%," ignoring the older people who make up the most vulnerable age group.
“What about people over 50? Do we stop caring about them? That’s why this (COVID) is so bad,” said Kissler, explaining that it is the severity among people who are older and with underlying conditions that makes COVID-19 so harmful from a broader social perspective.
He also said that the meme misunderstands what a death rate means.
“There’s a fallacy of numbers here,” he said, “I hear a lot of people saying the fatality rate is 1% like that’s nothing. But that actually means I have a 1 in 100 chance of dying.”
“There’s not many things I do where I have a 1:100 chance of dying.”
Or put another way. If you know 100 people, you will know at least one person who will die from COVID-19 assuming most people get infected.
Where the meme originated
This meme has been circulating since late February in some form or another. One version of the meme is the fusion of two related memes, both of which downplay the COVID-19 pandemic and contain conspiratorial undertones.
The earliest examples of the list of different diseases come from far-right conspiratorial Twitter accounts. The list of “facts” comes from a conspiracy theorist associated with QAnon, per reporting from the Daily Beast.
“If you believe one conspiracy you are more likely to believe any and all conspiracies,” said Matthew Pittman, a professor of advertising at the University of Tennessee. Pittman teaches social media studies classes in the school of journalism. He explained that conspiracy memes operate on the level of emotion and involve a lot of motivated reasoning.
“We all like to think of ourselves as rational creatures but we are really emotional,” Pittman said. “We feel first, and we construct our rational later.”
It is unclear when the two memes first merged.
One early example appears on the Facebook page of a chiropractor based in Pennsylvania. This Facebook page was flagged for COVID-19 misinformation earlier this year and features numerous antivaccine memes. The chiropractor did not respond to USA TODAY’s repeated attempts for comment.
Historically the consequences of pandemics are complex and difficult to predict. Some diseases like H1N1 disappeared from the public consciousness when they subsided. But many diseases never go away and their social and political impacts persist.
Take the case of HIV/AIDS. Emerging months into the presidency of Ronald Regan, HIV/AIDS would account for 14% of male deaths by 1989. The lack of response to the HIV/AIDS pandemic provoked multiple decades of activism, triggered a realignment of federal disease research policy, and led to the first Supreme Court decision recognizing the rights of gay couples. That pandemic had worldwide political implications. But all of this unfolded over decades and over the terms of both Republican and Democratic administrations.
Even though many people in developed nations now have access to treatment, the HIV pandemic has never gone away. According to UNAIDS, 1.7 million people acquired HIV in 2019, and 690,000 died that same year.
The long-term consequences, from a health, economic and political perspective of COVID-19 are still unknown.
Our ruling: False
We rate this claim as FALSE, based on our research. This meme contains multiple instances of misstated, incorrect or cherry-picked information arrayed to suggest a connection between elections and novel infectious diseases, and wrongfully implies that the current pandemic is a political plot.
Our fact-check sources:
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "SARS (10 Years After)"
- World Health Organization, March 17, 2014, H5N1 highly pathogenic avian influenza: Timeline of major events
- Avian Disease, 2003, The impact of avian influenza viruses on public health
- Theoretical Population Biology, December 2013, Economic epidemiology of avian influenza on smallholder poultry farms
- American Presidency Project, Aug. 25, 2008, 2008 Democratic Party platform
- World Health Organization, MERS, Dec. 20, 2019, https://www.who.int/news-room/q-a-detail/middle-east-respiratory-syndrome-coronavirus-(mers-cov)
- CDC, "Years of Ebola disease outbreaks"
- WHO, "The history of Zika virus"
- CDC, "H1N1 pandemic"
- New York Times, May 17, 2016, "Senate Votes to Advance Emergency Funding to Fight Zika Virus"
- NPR, Sept. 28, 2016, "Congress Ends Spat, Agrees To Fund $1.1 Billion To Combat Zika"
- ProPublica, March 17, "Inside the Pro-Trump Facebook Group Where First Responders Call Coronavirus a Hoax"
- PolitiFact, Feb. 28, "Every election year has a disease..."
- Daily Beast, March 12, "Trump Supporters Fuel Dangerous ‘Election Year’ Coronavirus Claim"
- Boston Review, June 30, "How epidemics end"
- CDC, "Current Trends Mortality Attributable to HIV Infection/AIDS -- United States, 1981-1990"
- Beacon Broadside, July 19, 2016, "The Curious Connections between Marriage Equality and HIV/AIDS"
- National Research Council (US) Panel on Monitoring the Social Impact of the AIDS Epidemic, 1993, "The Social Impact Of AIDS In The United States"
- Internet Archive, "From the closet to the courtroom : five LGBT rights lawsuits that have changed our nation," by Carlos A. Ball
- American Journal of Public Health, November 2007, "Good Politics, Bad Politics: The Experience of AIDS"
- UNAIDS, "Global HIV & AIDS statistics — 2020 fact sheet"
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