Why it matters that Kellyanne Conway flubbed a basic COVID-19 detail

Perhaps the case against the World Health Organization isn't quite as compelling as Team Trump likes to think?
Image: Kellyanne Conway
White House counselor Kellyanne Conway talks to reporters in the briefing room of the White House on Feb. 5, 2020.Evan Vucci / AP
Get the Msnbc newsletter.
SUBSCRIBE
By Steve Benen

About a month ago, Rush Limbaugh, eager to downplay the coronavirus threat, told his listeners why, in his opinion, they shouldn't worry about the pandemic. Suggesting that the deadly virus is little more than "the common cold," the far-right host added, "Why do you think this is 'COVID-19'? This is the 19th coronavirus. They're not uncommon."

Limbaugh's commentary obviously doesn't hold up especially well several weeks later. For one thing, the virus has killed over 32,000 people in the United States with brutal speed, making clear that it is far from "the common cold." For another, the disease caused by the coronavirus is called COVID-19 because it originated in 2019 -- not because it's the 19th iteration. The name is just an abbreviation for "coronavirus disease 2019."

But as it turns out, he's not the only one making this mistake. White House senior adviser Kellyanne Conway echoed the false claim on Fox News yesterday as part of Team Trump's offensive against the World Health Organization.

"Some of the scientists and doctors say that there could be other strains later on. This could come back in the fall in a limited way. This is COVID-19, not COVID-1 folks. And so, you would think the people charged with the World Health Organization facts and figures would be on top of that."

Conway later updated her talking points to reflect reality, though by that point, she'd already been on the receiving end of mockery.

It was obviously unfortunate that Conway didn't familiarize herself with the basics -- well into the pandemic crisis -- before her national television appearance, but let's not brush past the underlying point of her comments: a senior White House adviser was trying to disparage the World Health Organization.

Indeed, the timeline is relevant: White House officials spent a week signaling their dissatisfaction with the WHO, which led Donald Trump to announce a halt to U.S. financial support for the organization on Tuesday. It was the following day -- after the president's team had time to craft a persuasive case to justify the decision -- that Conway took her mistaken pitch to Fox News.

Perhaps the case against the World Health Organization isn't quite as compelling as Team Trump likes to think?