COVID-19: Propaganda & the Art of Exploiting a Pandemic

Throughout the U.S., institutions that have no real interest in public health are exploiting our sense of vulnerability to benefit their public images and their bottom lines, says Dr. Mike Pappas. 

By Mike Pappas
Left Voice

We have all likely seen or heard the commercials. They typically start with slow music and maybe a nice sunrise. The ads then give lip service to the “strange and uncertain” times in which we’re living. But never fear, your savior is here: some large corporation wants to let you know that they are “here for us.” Do not worry, even after the pandemic is over, they will still be “here for us.” This touching treacle would be incomplete without a nod to the “healthcare heroes” continuing to fight during this pandemic. It just touches your heart, doesn’t it? But the eerie similarity of many of the commercials is a bit off putting… It is almost as if there is a propaganda campaign designed to exploit our worry and vulnerability during the global pandemic. 

The Field of Public Relations

Exploring the field of public relations is helpful when examining the recent flood of sentimental adverts. Edward Bernays, Sigmund Freud’s nephew, is universally known as the “father of public relations.” In the 1920s he pioneered the technique of shaping and manipulating public opinion, which he called “engineering consent.” In his influential 1928 book “Propaganda,” Bernays highlights the need to utilize people’s emotions to steer public opinion. He states:

“The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in the democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of the country.”

Bernays highlights the need for corporations to shape and manipulate public opinion as a business practice. He discusses how businesses benefit from presenting themselves as being of the general community, creating a perception of a “personality” stating:

“Even in a basic sense, business is becoming dependent on public opinion […] Business must express itself and its entire corporate existence so that the public will understand and accept it. It must dramatize its personality and interpret its objectives in every particular in which it comes into contact with the community (or nation) of which it is a part.”

Knowing this history, it is no wonder that corporations are running ad campaigns of this sort at this particular juncture. A pandemic is as good a time as any to manipulate public opinion. While people’s lives are uncertain, as they are losing loved ones to disease and concerned about every day survival, institutions have exploited this crisis to try to better their image. 

Using Bernays’ Techniques Today

Institutions are spending millions of dollars on ad campaigns to “thank” either their particular essential workers, or the broad set of workers deemed “essential,” without actually doing anything to tangibly benefit the material conditions of workers. Let’s be straight here: these large institutions do not actually care about the health and wellbeing of the workers identified in their ads. Resources are not being spent to meet the needs of workers and communities, they are being used to create an image of caring in the public consciousness. This is invaluable to the corporation, as the image they work to create now will continue in the public mind long after the pandemic. Their hope is that their manipulative advertisements will build positive brand recognition down the line. 

In ad after ad, companies claim they are “here for us during the pandemic,” but what does that phrase even mean? What have these companies done to actually protect their employees? The answer is: nowhere near enough. We see, across the country, that the same corporations that are claiming to “be here for us” are putting their employees at risk through unsafe work conditions and mass lay-offs. While companies publicly pat themselves on the back for supporting the ‘heroes’ on the frontline, they are privately making a killing off of this pandemic through, among other things, price hikes on necessary medical equipment. 

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On May 1, essential workers around the country participated in a historic strike to demand the safer working conditions that their companies have still refused to provide. Amazon, Whole Foods, Target, and Instacart workers were all involved. Demands vary, but typically they include bare minimum asks like hazard pay and protective equipment for working. One would think that these would already have been provided by companies that care so much about their employees. It is appalling that a company such as Amazon — run by the richest man in the world with a net worth of over $100 billion — has been unable to provide these conditions for workers. 

If these large corporations wanted to be “here for us” during the pandemic, they would have no problem providing adequate protective equipment for workers and shutting down infected worksites, two measures that would allow employees to protect themselves, their families and the general public from the coronavirus. Amazon and Whole Foods would have no problem heeding worker demands to cut shipping quotas that force workers to overexpose themselves during a pandemic. Meat packing plants — which have turned into viral incubators during this pandemic — would have no problem ensuring adequate protection, testing, treatment, or even closing down if necessary to protect their workers and the general public. 

Yet, up to this point, these companies have been unable and unwilling to heed worker demands. The executives that run these companies do not actually care about employee or community health. They only care about the perpetual flow of profits during and after the pandemic. Maintaining a good public image contributes to this bottom line. Within an economic system that puts profit above all else, it is no surprise that we have seen billionaires’ net worth increase during this pandemic: they continue to exploit their workers, endangering them and the general public, while running warm and fuzzy ads thanking workers as “heroes.” 

Others Want in On the Action

A Marine rifleman and New York City counter-terrorism police officers guard the hospital ship USNS Comfort in New York City, April 23, 2020. (U.S. Marine Corps, Stormy Mendez)

The cynical ploy of exploiting people’s compassion and empathy during a pandemic has not been limited to the corporate elite. Other murderous institutions have also made sure to capitalize: enter the police and the military industrial complex. 

As a healthcare worker myself, I recently received notice that the New York Police Department (NYPD) wanted to participate in a rally outside our hospital to blare their sirens to “thank essential workers” for all that we are doing to fight the pandemic. The NYPD is an institution that continues to terrorize the general public and continues to threaten the health of the patients I work with every day. Now, they are asking to participate in thanking essential workers for their service. These essential workers, particularly those of color, are the same ones that the racist institution of policing threatens on a daily basis.

The NYPD, just like the large corporations, sees this pandemic as an opportunity to polish its public image. The hope is that placing officers outside hospitals or healthcare institutions, clapping and blaring their sirens, will present the institution’s “personality,” to use Bernays’ words, as one that is helpful, grateful, and compassionate. The hope is that some well-placed “cop-aganda” will help the public forget about the NYPD’s racist, murderous past and present.

As an example of their hypocrisy, a recent video showed California police violently assaulting a 14-year-old boy. How does this help anyone’s public health? A physician in Miami was recently preparing to test homeless individuals for coronavirus when he was profiled and cuffed by police without masks, exposing the physician to potential coronavirus infection. In NYC, the NYPD notoriously has helped the domestic terrorist force, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) tear people away from their families to put them into detainment camps that are overrun with coronavirus cases due to overcrowding and poor sanitary conditions. If police departments around the country wanted to help essential workers, the best thing they could do is turn off their sirens and simply make the decision to stop terrorizing communities en masse. 

“Thunderbirds” and the a U.S. Navy’s “Blue Angels” fly over Philadelphia during an #AmericaStrong flyover honoring Covid-19 first responders, April 28, 2020. (Air Force/Brian Wagner)

The propaganda charade would not be complete, though, without the arguably most murderous institution of them all getting in on the action. Recently, the military flew U.S. Airforce Thunderbirds and U.S. Navy Blue Angels over New York, New Jersey and Philadelphia to “honor” first responders during the pandemic. The planes making these flights represent the U.S. military industrial complex that has led to mass death and destruction around the globe. The U.S. military budget is greater than 144 countries combined. This money represents funds that could go into a robust public health system in the U.S. that instead goes into dropping drones on innocent black and brown people halfway across the world. Let’s not forget that this same system produces more greenhouse gas emissions than up to 140 countries — greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to the coming climate collapse and create the air pollution that makes people more susceptible to coronavirus complications, leading to more deaths.

While the military industrial complex uses wildly wasteful flyovers as publicity stunts to “express thanks,” the U.S. government has continued its murderous sanctions on other countries, such as Venezuela and Iran, making it much harder to combat the global pandemic. The U.S. war machine has also continued contributing to the largest humanitarian catastrophe in the world in Yemen through supporting the Saudi regime. In the midst of this crisis, the U.S. is also still bombing other countries, including Somalia, which ranks second to last in global health security. 

If the U.S. military really cared about “supporting” first responders and frontline workers during the pandemic, it could start with stopping actions that increase suffering and death around the world. Instead it’s using the heroic work of front- line workers to bolster its own blood-soaked image. 

Ultimately, it’s a given that profit-driven institutions responsible for death, destruction, and exploitation will attempt to manipulate public opinion for their own benefit. We must recognize the actions of these institutions and expose them for what they are: superficial, callous, and cynical ploys to reform their public image. We can combat the coronavirus pandemic, but not with corporate executives, racist police, or representatives of the military industrial complex in million dollar planes. Working people, organized and fighting, show the way forward.

Mike Pappas is an activist and medical doctor working in New York City.

This article is from Left Voice.

The views expressed are solely those of the author and may or may not reflect those of Consortium News.

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7 comments for “COVID-19: Propaganda & the Art of Exploiting a Pandemic

  1. Chris
    May 8, 2020 at 06:43

    Isn’t it grand, seeing these highly skilled and trained pilots maneuvering their 67 million dollar machines through an airspace near you ?
    What I want to know is, where were their less glamorous brethren on the morning of September 11, 2001.

  2. rosemerry
    May 6, 2020 at 16:10

    I cannot see my other comment, but for interest I refer to the US government “aid” to business with a quote from Wall Street on Parade yesterday:
    “Fed Chair Powell Has Upwards of $11.6 Million Invested with BlackRock, the Firm that Will Manage a $750 Billion Corporate Bond Bailout Program for the Fed”;
    I notice following Dr Pappas’ article that paypal is using the same “caring” technique now too!

  3. rosemerry
    May 6, 2020 at 16:02

    We can also look at the “government help”, which ensures Boeing, fossil fuel companies, big banks and other needy institutions not only get big bailouts despite already showing losses and should be allowed to fail, but are now included in the “Main Street” aid allegedly for those in need. Half of US employees work in small businesses (fewer than 500 employees) but these are not included in the new rules-instead huge corporations are getting extra funding while the majority get nil.
    Reading “Wall Street on Parade” daily (free e-newsletter) gives a graphic picture of what is now going on, and people like Mnuchin and the Fed. Reserve Chair Jerome Powell, already with known biases towards the rich and powerful, feature as stars in the decisions affecting us all.

  4. AnneR
    May 6, 2020 at 13:24

    Absolutely true Dr Pappas – so long as the profiteering medical industry is included along with the racist police, the rapacious MIC and its effects on the world beyond these shores (all to wad the wallets of the masters of war manufactory), and the rest of the avaricious US corporate-capitalist-imperialists. The medical industry is little different, indeed has *no* recognizable in country difference, when it comes to seeing patients/people from any of these egregious, reprehensible, and generally despicable institutions, money-making machines: if money can’t be made from them (i.e. no “health” insurance of any sort) then f*** ’em. Let ’em die or garnish their meager wages, bankrupt them – or their families.

  5. michael888
    May 6, 2020 at 10:58

    When one looks at the numbers of deaths per million, it is readily apparent that something different in happening in the US and Western Europe vs Asia (and Eastern Europe and the Middle East): Myanmar (0.1), Syria (0.2), Taiwan (0.3), Sri Lanka (0.4), Hong Kong (0.5), Thailand (0.8), India (1), Bangladesh (1), Pakistan (2), Iraq (2),China (3), Singapore (3), Indonesia (3), Malaysia (3), Japan (4), Lebanon (4), S. Korea (5), Slovakia (5), Saudi Arabia (6), Philippines (6), Ukraine (7), Russia (10), Belarus (11), Bulgaria (11), Greece (14), Poland (18), Croatia (20), Serbia (23), Israel (27), Iceland (29), Hungary (38), Norway (39), Turkey (41), Finland (44), Slovenia (47), Austria (67), Iran (75), Germany (83), Denmark (87), Switzerland (207),USA (211), Ireland (267), Sweden (283), Netherlands (302), France (386), UK (423), Italy (481), Spain (548), and Belgium (692). Some countries may just be “entering” the pandemic but Asian countries have been dealing with it as long and much better. Why? Is the West just incompetent?

    • SRH
      May 7, 2020 at 04:39

      At least part of the reason must be the West’s embrace of neoliberalism and austerity over the last couple of decades or more. Those policies, designed to aid the wealthy while killing public services, have left our societies deeply vulnerable to any sudden shocks. Capitalist food supply chains assume all links will be in place; when they’re not, we see continuing empty shelves. Governments composed of libertarian extremists, a prominent example being the current Tory cabinet in the UK, are working hard to dismantle the administration of services such as health care in favour of private corporations. They’re not just incompetent, they are deliberately so because of their ideology. People on the Left often fail to grasp just how the capitalists use any possible opportunity to change government policies and create legislation to funnel wealth upwards. The Left is usually too lazy and naive to succeed, perhaps because altruism and communal activism are no match for greed and self-interest.

      “The government is using the coronavirus pandemic to transfer key public health duties from the NHS and other state bodies to the private sector without proper scrutiny, critics have warned. Doctors, campaign groups, academics and MPs raised the concerns about a “power grab” after it emerged on Monday that Serco was in pole position to win a deal to supply 15,000 call-handlers for the government’s tracking and tracing operation. They said the health secretary, Matt Hancock, had “accelerated” the dismantling of state healthcare and that the duty to keep the public safe was being “outsourced” to the private sector.”–The Guardian, May 4, 2020.

    • May 7, 2020 at 05:53

      I certainly agree with that. Why so differences?

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