Bad Takes: Bill Maher continues his spree of COVID falsehoods on Joe Rogan's podcast

The comedian used Rogan's Austin-based podcast as a megaphone for his flawed faux-punditry.

click to enlarge Bill Maher has been a font of faulty facts when it comes to the pandemic. - David Becker
David Becker
Bill Maher has been a font of faulty facts when it comes to the pandemic.
Bad Takes is a periodic column of opinion and analysis.

"We are both seen as people who are sort of like commonsensical." — Bill Maher to Joe Rogan on April 12

There's a time and place for tasteless jokes and conspiratorial speculation, and in the mosaic of contemporary American faux-punditry, that time and place is located 80 miles north of San Antonio on Austin's The Joe Rogan Experience.

"Have you ever been to a Vegas pool party?" comedian Bill Maher asked Rogan last Tuesday on the most popular podcast ever. Rogan replied yes, to which Maher set the scene: "It's a lot of muscle men like you standing in a pool at noon. They haven't been to sleep yet, they're baking in the sun, on steroids, drinking all night — had unprotected sex, snorted coke through a dirty $20 bill — and they're fine. They're fine. So when I see kids walking with a mask outside alone, I just want to punch them. Because, you know what? You have the good immune system at that age."

Rogan agreed. "Young kids get COVID and it's no big deal," he said. "But the young kids I see walking around with masks on, voluntarily, that disturbs me."

In fact, rates of COVID hospitalization among children and infants 0-4 years of age were five times higher during the Omicron wave, and 87% of kids 5-11 who were hospitalized with COVID were unvaccinated — 30% of whom had no underlying health conditions.

So, heaping scorn on conscientious mask-wearers hardly seems commonsensical in the midst of a pandemic that just won't quit. Neither Maher nor Rogan paused to consider that perhaps the young folks in question wore masks in public to protect crotchety old men such as themselves.

COVID has taken the lives of at least 25,000 Americans under the age of 40, but death is far from the only reason to take sensible precautions to avoid catching — or re-catching or re-re-catching — this potentially debilitating disease. We're learning more by the week about the long-term complications that often result from even mild bouts with coronavirus, as National Geographic reported this month:

“Of the roughly 80 million Americans who’ve gotten COVID-19 so far, about one of every four survivors suffers from impaired cognition — an array of symptoms such as confusion, word-finding difficulties, short-term memory loss, dizziness or inability to concentrate. Brain scans now show that even a mild case of COVID-19 can shrink part of the brain, causing physical changes equivalent to a decade of aging. Experts also worry that between the wide availability of vaccines and the rise of the relatively milder Omicron variant, people are letting their guard down too soon because they’re not concerned about the possible cognitive damage from getting sick.”

A meta-analysis of 31 studies just published in The Journal of Infectious Diseases found that 49% of those who have recovered from COVID reported persistent symptoms *four months after* their diagnosis, including fatigue, memory problems, difficulty breathing and joint pain.

"As someone who actually knows a number of individuals who are suffering from Long COVID, I can tell you, this is a huge challenge," epidemiologist Michael Osterholm explained on the 100th episode of his pandemic podcast. "I've seen people who are physically very capable, mentally very sharp, who just four to eight weeks after their initial infection are now not themselves."

Four hundred Americans continue to die daily from COVID, and over the past 14 days, the country has tallied a 46% increase in cases, which is likely a massive undercount given the ubiquity of at-home testing. Now, as ever, we have a civic duty not to throw the vulnerable and unlucky under the on-coming train of Omicron's second pass.

Suggesting that COVID-19 is only a genuine concern for those who are not in good health comprised the theme of Maher's cacophony of misinformation on Rogan's podcast. Here are five falsehoods he borrowed Rogan's deafening megaphone to broadcast:

1. "I certainly haven't heard anything about obesity from the government, that it's unhealthy, because they would never say that."

Oh yeah? The Center for Disease Control website on obesity and COVID-19 plainly states for all to read that obesity has increased over the past two years and that obesity worsens outcomes from COVID-19. It also recommends a healthy diet and staying physically active. Further, the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Health and Human Services since 1980, do not present obesity "as an alternative lifestyle,, contrary to Maher's portrayal, but as "a major public health problem."

In the first months of 2020, the Sith lord of public health himself, Anthony Fauci, highlighted obesity as a "very, very clear" risk group. “Paramount among" the comorbidities which lead to severe COVID illness, Fauci told the American Heart Association (AHA) in November of that year, "is obesity."

So what in the exact flying fuck is Maher talking about when he claimed "the government" would "never say" that "obesity is unhealthy"?

2. "According to the statistics I've been trying to get people to understand — and, again, this is from the CDC — 78% of people who died or were hospitalized were obese."

That's false, yet Maher has parroted repeatedly, perhaps after reading this misleading CNBC headline from March 2021: "CDC study finds about 78% of people hospitalized for Covid were overweight or obese." Note the key phrase: overweight *or* obese. A full 72% of American adults are technically overweight. So, even if being overweight wasn't a risk factor, we would expect — by sheer random chance — more than 70% of Americans hospitalized for COVID to be overweight as well.

CNBC unfortunately buried the following nuance in the body of the story: "It doesn’t take a lot of extra pounds to be considered overweight or obese. A 5-foot-10-inch man at 175 pounds and 5-foot-4-inch woman at 146 pounds would both be considered overweight with Body Mass Indices of just over 25, according to the CDC’s BMI calculator."

And according to a study in the Journal of the AHA, which the medical researcher Maher said he keeps on staff must somehow have forgotten to read to him, roughly 30% of COVID hospitalizations were attributable to obesity. A significant finding, to be sure, but does that warrant Maher's hyperbole? "If you're the media and you're not broadcasting that factor all the time, if you're the government and you're not trying to get people to be aware of that factor, uh, that's suspicious and criminal," Maher told Rogan.

What's morally disgusting is Maher, as so many other COVID-downplayers, conjures up the image of the "morbidly obese eating Twinkies all day" in a bid to disparage continued COVID mitigation efforts as Draconian dehumanizing impositions on their private liberty. What's truly criminal is that we've let a million Americans die in no small part to coddle those who confuse inconvenience with tyranny.
  
3. "It wasn't cool that they didn't allow the lab-leak theory to be talked about. For months you couldn't even mention it."

Although unclear which "they" Maher was referring to, he admitted 52 seconds later that Robert Redfield, a former head of the CDC, told CNN he believed SARS-CoV-2 "escaped" from the Wuhan Institute of Virology. President Biden's own CDC director, Rochelle Walensky, told the U.S. Senate last May, "Certainly a lab-based origin is one possibility." National Review, the flagship periodical of potty-trained conservatives, ran stories on the lab-leak theory as far back as April 2020. Not one was prohibited from mentioning the idea.  Yes, major social media networks applied fact-check warnings or removed posts which claimed the virus was an engineered bioweapon, manufactured and intentionally released by the Chinese Communist Party. Lumping that in with the lab-leak hypothesis was inexact and dishonest.

4 "I don't have any objection to calling it the Wuhan virus because every virus has been named after the place it came from. Not everything is about racism. That again is one of those common sense things."

The standard nomenclature of the 2009 H1N1 pandemic was not "Mexican flu", because, as the World Health Organization cautioned at the time, "We're very aware of the potential for stigmatization." Further debunking this passé practice, the "Spanish flu" of 1919 didn't even originate in Spain.

San Antonio's city council voted unanimously in May 2020 to admonish "the deliberate use of of terms such as 'Chinese virus' or 'Kung Fu flu' to describe COVID-19," which "only encourages hate crimes against Asians and further spreads misinformation at a time when communities should be working together to get through this crisis."

That worry was not hypothetical. The previous month, two attackers broke the wrist of a 70-year-old Chinese restaurant owner in San Antonio after berating him with COVID-accusatory slurs. The month before that, in Midland, Texas, a man stabbed a Burmese father and his 6-year-old son in a Sam's Club, mistakenly believing they were Chinese and thus personally responsible for the pandemic. Held down by a store employee, the assailant yelled at his victims, "Get out of America!"

Somebody who has earned his millions by crafting words shouldn't need reminding that they have consequences.

5. "Not to be a conspiracy theorist, but it's just suspicious to me, that we're not allowed to talk about the things that wouldn't be that profitable, like Vitamin D."

Rogan then chimed in sarcastically: "That's a coincidence, Bill Maher. That's just a coincidence."

Who in the Wide Wide World of Sports is not allowing Bill Maher to talk about Vitamin D? And does this alleged gag rule apply to the nation's top infectious disease expert?

Evidently not. Appearing on actress Jennifer Garner's Instagram in the autumn of 2020, with an audience of over 12 million followers, Darth Fauci advised folks to get their Vitamin D. "If you are deficient in Vitamin D, that does have an impact on your susceptibility to infection," he said. "So I would not mind recommending — and I do it myself — taking Vitamin D supplements." If anyone knows what reeducation camp Fauci was sent to afterward, please let us know.

Although Maher's most recent appearance on Rogan's podcast delved into fascinating marijuana-inspired topics in nick of time for 4/20, like homosexual comraderie among the ancient Spartans, moose trampling, almost comically humongous pandemic fraud and tattoos, his incessant regurgitating of concocted horror stories about "woke" mobs victimizing free-thinking truth-tellers such as himself is goddamn annoying. For all the ridicule he's leveled against believers in Jesus Christ, it's Maher who feels at his most comfortable when nailing himself to a cross.

"People say to me, 'Don't you think you've gotten more conservative?' No, I haven't. The Left has gotten goofier, so I seem more conservative maybe," he said. "But it's not me who changed. I feel I'm the same guy."

Columnist Ben Burgis agreed with this self-assessment, persuasively arguing, "Maher isn’t entirely wrong when he says he hasn’t changed. In many ways he’s always been this bad."

Burgis elaborated: "When there was an avian flu scare in 2005, Maher told Larry King that he wasn’t worried — not because the case count was relatively low and he was confident that the outbreak could be contained — but because he wasn’t 'into Western medicine' and he thought that if you have a healthy body with a strong immune system, you’ll be fine. Oh, and you shouldn’t take the flu shot because 'it’s got mercury' and anyway vaccines are usually a bad idea because they 'compromise your immune system.'

"Four years later when people started worrying about the swine flu, Maher took a harder line, declaring in a 2009 Real Time episode that, 'I would never get a swine flu vaccine or any vaccine. I don’t trust the government, especially with my health.'"

Thankfully, Bill Maher changed his tune and was vaccinated before he contracted COVID in May of 2021, admitting that the shot helped him quickly recover.

Lest my criticisms above be misconstrued as calling for Maher's "cancellation" — whatever that means — I found his most recent comedy special, Adulting, a fun way to spend a weeknight. He's a solid stand-up, and an important ally in campaigns to end the War on Drugs and fend off Republican onslaughts against sustainable ecology and electoral democracy.

But if either he or Rogan aspire to their self-proclaimed role as exemplars of Common Sense, they'll need to liposuction away some of the unsightly blubber of their covidiocy.

Real Time with Bill Maher, in its 20th season, airs Fridays on HBO.

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