News that US President Donald J Trump understood the deadly potential of the novel coronavirus from the beginning, despite his sustained public dismissals, has provoked anger and surprise.
Audio recordings from interviews granted to veteran reporter Bob Woodward expose a clear disconnect between the President's many public utterances dating back to January, and those he made to Woodward intended for reporting at a later time.
"You just breathe the air and that's how it's passed," Trump said on February 7, before the US had even experienced its first confirmed coronavirus-related death.
"And so that's a very tricky one. That's a very delicate one. It's also more deadly than even your strenuous flus," he continued.
"This is deadly stuff".
The President's clarity came 10 days after he had received dire warnings from his health and national security advisers to the effect that the world faced a health crisis not seen since the "Spanish Flu" of 1918-19.
Then, speaking to Woodward again on March 19, he explained his thinking had been deliberately calculated to "play it down".
"I still like playing it down, because I don't want to create a panic," he said.
That this President is strategic to the point of deceit will come as no surprise to his critics, within America and beyond.
However some will be surprised to learn that, contrary to his ill-informed ramblings about COVID-19 simply disappearing, or being treatable with bright lights and injections of disinfectant, he actually did comprehend the medical advice regarding the virus well before it cut a deadly swathe through the American population overwhelming its hospitals.
With the US death toll soon expected to surpass 200,000, his decision to deceive Americans in order to limit public harm seems utterly absurd.
Yet still he did little to co-ordinate a national response and continued to undermine the kind of public awareness required to drive social distancing.
Whether his justification of avoiding public panic is the whole truth is itself questionable. It seems more likely that, heading into an election year with the strong US economy as his singular advantage, the President was simply unwilling to brook the downturn required to fight the virus.
In any event, with the US death toll soon expected to surpass 200,000, his decision to deceive Americans in order to limit public harm seems utterly absurd.
Yet governments and their officials have often considered the dangers of public overreaction when disseminating emergency advice.
Sometimes this is because an uncontrolled public clamour would create a secondary crisis, and sometimes it is because public panic is itself the problem.
In 1974, South Australian Labor premier Don Dunstan grabbed a loud hailer to address an anxious throng of Hindmarsh Building Society depositors and assure them their savings were safe, the institution was solvent and it was all underwritten by the state treasury.
In October 2008, the Rudd government carefully calibrated its public utterances so as to avoid causing a run on financial institutions, while nonetheless announcing deposit guarantees for some $2 trillion in deposits and becoming guarantor for the wholesale funding requirements of Australian banks amid the gathering storm of the GFC.
Later it emerged Kevin Rudd and his ministers were getting real-time information suggesting several banks were experiencing abnormal withdrawals. Suncorp weathered a massive uptick that pushed it close to insolvency. One business figure had reportedly withdrawn $3 million and was taking it across town in a suitcase.
Needless to say, these graphic details were judiciously withheld, demonstrably in the interests of financial sector stability and by extension, the greater public interest.
In these cases, fear itself was the contagion.
Yet the emergent COVID-19 pandemic presented precisely the opposite problem. Fear, or less dramatically, acute public awareness, offered the solution.
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Health authorities quickly realised that the highest possible level of public observance via enhanced personal hygiene practices presented the only realistic hope of containing the pandemic.
In Australia, state governments, perhaps because they are more accustomed to receiving front-line emergency services briefings, acted quickly to invoke social distancing rules, adopt aggressive health messaging and introduce a raft of extreme measures such as sporting bans, school closures, travel restrictions and border closures. Police were given extraordinary new powers.
The Commonwealth response was slower and more reluctant - notwithstanding that by international standards, it appeared relatively front-footed.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison famously resisted many of the states' more extreme measures, and even advocated attendance at large sporting events while reluctantly foreshadowing incoming limits on public gatherings.
Then-chief medical officer Brendan Murphy also questioned disruptive measures, such as border and school closures. Face masks were also questioned, with the federal government at first insisting they offered little protection outside healthcare settings and were, in any event, unnecessary.
"Well, certainly wearing a mask walking down the streets of Melbourne makes no sense at all because there's no evidence of community transmission generally ... I'm certainly very opposed to people wearing them in the general community," Professor Murphy told ABC Radio's Ali Moore on March 9.
Yet increased public awareness came with costs, too. Australia made international headlines for its run on toilet paper and other essentials, with supermarkets stripped of products, shoppers squabbling, and retail staff abused for shortages or store-imposed item limits.
The lesson is that full transparency must be the default position of governments - but not when fear itself is the central problem.
- Mark Kenny is a professor at the ANU's Australian Studies Institute and host of the Democracy Sausage podcast.