Family Of COVID-19 Victim Who Criticized 'Hysteria' Around Virus Faces Online Attacks An evangelical pastor shared a Facebook meme calling concerns about the coronavirus "mass hysteria." He later died of COVID-19. Then his family became the target of online harassment.
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Family Of COVID-19 Victim Who Criticized 'Hysteria' Around Virus Faces Online Attacks

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Family Of COVID-19 Victim Who Criticized 'Hysteria' Around Virus Faces Online Attacks

Family Of COVID-19 Victim Who Criticized 'Hysteria' Around Virus Faces Online Attacks

Family Of COVID-19 Victim Who Criticized 'Hysteria' Around Virus Faces Online Attacks

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An evangelical pastor shared a Facebook meme calling concerns about the coronavirus "mass hysteria." He later died of COVID-19. Then his family became the target of online harassment.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

You don't have to look hard to see signs that the coronavirus has settled neatly into America's existing bitter political divide - armed protesters in a state capital, conspiracy theories about where the virus came from. The chambers of Congress couldn't even agree on how to safely come back to Washington. While this discord has life-and-death significance for public health, it also has personal consequences. Kelly McEvers, host of NPR's Embedded podcast, has the story of a family living with those consequences.

KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: Back in February, Landon and Jean Spradlin went to New Orleans to witness - something they'd been doing for the past few years during Mardi Gras.

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LANDON SPRADLIN: (Singing) It's been a long, long time coming.

MCEVERS: This is Landon and his band on the main square of the French Quarter. Back then, there were no stay-at-home orders. Jean Spradlin says people crowded around to listen.

JEAN SPRADLIN: And when we're done playing, we get a chance to talk to them about Jesus. And then another crowd moves in on the next set of songs.

MCEVERS: The Spradlins are charismatic Christians, and for them, music is a way to connect to people and encourage them to lead a Christian life. Their plan was to stay in New Orleans for about a month, but then Landon got what seemed like a cold or bad allergies. He was diagnosed with bronchitis, then pneumonia. And he was tested for the coronavirus, but the test came back negative. Around the same time, President Trump was saying the number of coronavirus cases would soon be close to zero and comparing it to the seasonal flu.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: It's going to disappear one day. It's like a miracle. It will disappear.

MCEVERS: Conservative media downplayed it, too. On March 13, Landon Spradlin, a Trump supporter, posted a meme that described the reaction to COVID-19 as, quote, "mass hysteria" and said, the media is manipulating your life.

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TRUMP: Beautiful day in the Rose Garden - appreciate everybody being here. Today I'd like to...

MCEVERS: That same day, President Trump declared a national emergency.

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TRUMP: Two very big words.

MCEVERS: And soon, a lot of places started closing down. A few days later, Landon and Jean decided to go back home to Virginia. She drove while he slept.

SPRADLIN: And I thought that that was because he was finally getting rest because he'd been coughing a lot. And I said, hey; do you want to stop at this rest stop and use the restroom? And he said, no, no, because the last time he went, he said, I just feel a little bit weak. And then I couldn't go anymore because I needed to use the restroom, so I pulled over. And I tried to get him out of the car.

MCEVERS: But he couldn't stand up.

SPRADLIN: He just crumpled all the way to the ground and sat there, leaning against the inside of the door of the truck. And a crowd gathered, and they called 911. And a fire truck answered and the ambulance, and they said that his oxygen level was 46, which meant that all the time I thought he was resting beside me - all that time, his lungs were shutting down. And he was getting less and less oxygen.

MCEVERS: Landon was admitted to a hospital and put on a ventilator.

SPRADLIN: They took him away, and I couldn't see him until they had already intubated him. And I saw him one time after that that his eyes were open for 10 minutes. He said - in those 10 minutes, he said two things. He said, I'm sorry, and he said, I love you around the tube that was going down him.

MCEVERS: What do you think he was sorry for?

SPRADLIN: He was sorry that he was causing trouble. He was sorry that he was in the hospital because he knew it would be a big bill. He was just sorry that this happened.

MCEVERS: Later that day, doctors told Jean they had tested Landon for the coronavirus again. This time, it came back positive.

SPRADLIN: People kept saying it was going to be all right. But I had seen him, and I knew it wasn't going to be all right.

MCEVERS: A week later, Landon died, and pretty quickly, his story made its way around the Internet. Strangers started attacking him on Facebook. They knew Landon only as the guy who'd posted a meme saying the reaction to COVID-19 was mass hysteria and then died of it. One person mocked him for an interview he gave in 2016 saying God can heal illnesses. Another posted Landon's obituary on his Facebook page and wrote, you don't know me, but I found this story on the Internet and can't stop laughing. Here's Landon's daughter Jesse.

JESSE SPRADLIN: We started having people say, oh, look at this man who said COVID was a hoax, which - by the way, he did not say that. This man said COVID was a hoax. How's the hoax looking now from the grave? People personally messaged my mother's Facebook page, telling her that this is all Trump's fault.

MCEVERS: Landon Spradlin isn't the only person who downplayed this virus, died and then got attacked online. The fact-checking website Snopes confirmed a story about a woman in Texas. She reposted a screed saying the coronavirus was a hoax intended to install socialism and later died. A GoFundMe page set up for medical expenses said she tested positive for the virus, and people online said she got what she deserved. Snopes investigated another story about a man in Ohio who said the virus was a political ploy. He died of COVID-19, and his wife canceled his livestreamed funeral because she said his death, quote, "opened the floodgates for people's misguided anger."

EMILY BRUMFIELD-HESSEN: I think what everybody on every side of the political spectrum needs to understand is this is not some directed event with cosmic meaning.

MCEVERS: This is Emily Brumfield-Hessen. She grew up near Landon Spradlin in southern Virginia. Her mother went to a church that he'd founded. She doesn't share Landon's political views. She says she wasn't happy about that meme he posted.

BRUMFIELD-HESSEN: I really wish he had never shared anything like that.

MCEVERS: But Emily Brumfield-Hessen also says Landon Spradlin did not deserve to become a punchline. She knew him as a pastor and a musician whose brand of Christianity was welcoming, not fire and brimstone. One winter, when her parents had to move out because they couldn't afford to fix their broken heater, Landon looked after the house for them. And Emily, who is a transgender woman, says Landon used the pronouns that trans people asked him to use. So after she saw people attacking Landon online, Emily wrote an essay urging them to stop.

BRUMFIELD-HESSEN: I think people grasp onto conspiracy theories or ideas of karma or ideas that - finally, these people who ignored science are going to be punished - because they want a sense of control and reliability in the world to feel like they're not - everything isn't chaos. But it is chaos, and we just have to work together at least until this is over.

MCEVERS: She says if we really want to stop the spread of this virus, trolling people isn't going to help. But for Jean Spradlin, all of this just isn't about politics.

SPRADLIN: Since my husband, who has been basically my life, has passed away, my world has shrunk to my next breath. A lot of people have made it political. It is so personal to me.

MCEVERS: Jean just moved to Texas to be closer to her daughters, who are playing their own music and witnessing at home - sometimes online - for anyone who wants to hear.

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SPRADLIN: (Singing) 'Cause I mostly want to tell you that I miss your loving eyes (ph).

KELLY: That was Kelly McEvers, host of NPR's Embedded podcast. If you have lost someone to COVID-19, they'd like to hear from you. Record a voice memo with a favorite story about your loved one and send it to embedded@npr.org. That's embedded@npr.org.

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