Amyiah Cohoon did everything right:
- She cut her spring break at Disney World short in early March, as the virus took hold across the country.
- She self-quarantined and sought medical help as soon as she showed symptoms.
- She had herself tested as soon as possible.
Yet wouldn’t you know it, her test was delayed. Back then you couldn’t get tests for anything. You still cannot get timely tests, and almost one out of three yield inaccurate results. You feel lucky if the lab doesn’t lose your sample. Long after she showed symptoms, Amyiah’s test came back negative. Her doctors said all indications point to Covid-19, but she likely passed the window for testing positive.
Most importantly from a social perspective, to contain the pandemic, she told people in her social network about her illness. That is crucial to track its spread. We have intrusive, high-tech surveillance systems, but in fact the most important method of containment depends on infected victims of the virus spreading the news about their illness.
Now comes the interesting part. A school administrator – responsible for students’ health in Oxford, Wisconsin, where Amyiah lives – broadcast a message to alert parents and others about Amyiah’s posts on Instagram:
Let me assure you there is NO truth to this. This was a foolish means to get attention and the source of the rumor has been addressed. This rumor had caught the attention of our Public Health Department and she was involved in putting a stop to this nonsense.
You read that message correctly. Instead of informing parents, medical professionals, public health officers, and fellow students of a likely case in the school district, instead of spreading the word to key people based on Amyiah’s careful documentation of her illness, this anonymous administrator casts Amyiah’s reports as intentional deceit, “a foolish means to get attention”, rumors, and “nonsense.” By the time you come to the end of these forty-nine words, you come to believe this administrator is frantic if not psychotic, as she has done nothing to verify whether the report is truthful or not.
I have come across a lot of examples of authorities not doing their jobs during this extraordinary time, of people in a capacity to help and who ought to know better, acting so as to sow confusion, distrust, anger, and a helpless sense that the people who say they want to assist are actually out to destroy us. This example comes across as one of the worst.
Meantime, self-centered, narrow-minded, and insecure leaders undercut their own authority with ill-considered acts. All their energy goes in the wrong directions. They make people they serve say, again and again, “What the f-ck? Can I possibly understand these words correctly?” Public officials cannot get it together to permit distribution of simple tests for the virus, but if someone reports an illness consistent in every way with Covid-19, right down to contracting it during a spring break visit to Disney World, they treat it as a lie designed to gain attention.
Well it does not take a genius to interpret the school administrator’s words in a different light, to understand what is in the school administrator’s head as she types out the word “nonsense.” While Amyiah calmly informs people of her situation, the school official panics with the idea that people in Amyiah’s school district might panic because an infected individual exists in their midst. The official’s haste and anxiety reveal themselves in the wording and tone of her message.
The rest of the country acts rationally to contain the disease, while people in charge panic. The rest of the country follows orders, while the people who give orders cannot come up with a consistent, rational, or balanced policy that protects people. Instead they call victims attention-grabbing rumor mongers who must be silenced. A sheriff’s deputy shows up at Amyiah’s home and orders her to remove her posts, or else he will start “taking people to jail.”
Amyiah’s family filed suit in Wisconsin based on free speech grounds. That is how we define legal disputes in our country. We base our arguments on consitutional rights, not moral principles. So be it. Do not let that distract you from the core matter in this case. Leaders who claim authority – moral as well as legal authority – fail in their obligations of leadership over and over. At a time when communities look to leaders, where they rely on them, leaders consistently communicate their obtuse grasp of what people expect of them. Their words and actions say:
Bugger off. We look after ourselves. If we cannot make you shut up with legal threats, we will throw you in prison while you are sick. Let’s see if you spread the virus to other inmates while you are there: then we can charge you with violation of your quarantine as well as lying. At least you won’t be able to post to Instagram from the county jail.
That is the official message to people who try to fill in for their leaders’ failures, who try to act responsibly while leaders dither: get the f-ck out of here while we defame you as rumor mongers, spreaders of disinformation, and – we’ll throw the ultimate slander in here – as conspiracy theorists. We all have to protect ourselves from people like you, the officials say. We have no hesitation about broadcasting a false alert to an entire school district to protect ourselves. Moreover, we have the sheriff’s office on our side.
What effect do you think this episode will have on the next person who wants to post at Facebook or Instagram about having Covid-19? You cannot know if the platform might remove your posts, shut down your account, and inform local authorities, who then appear at your door to threaten you with legal action. Rather than protect people against the pandemic, which leaders have shown they do not know how to do, their new mission is to protect us from misinformation. Rounding out their displays of incompetence, they have shown they do not know how to do that either.
The school administrator shows us how leaders define social responsibility. Because they have power to send a sheriff’s deputy to your door to threaten arrest, the incentives line up to keep quiet. Do not say anything that draws attention to yourself, because what you say might make leaders look incompetent, as if they have have allowed a leper in the door. That’s how leaders act when they have no moral sense of their role or their duties, no conviction that they have anything at all to offer.
Read more about Amyiah’s lawsuit against the Marquette County sheriff’s office here: