Army officials fired a social media manager on Saturday for an Instagram post related to the ongoing coronavirus outbreak that critics — including at least one member on Congress — blasted as offensive and racist.
The post, part of a series of questions and answers on the virus, was up on the Army’s official social media account for several hours before being deleted. Under the posted question “why did a man eat a bat,” Army officials wrote “it wasn’t because he was thirsty” with a picture of a man shrugging.
The comment appears to reference rumors that the coronavirus originated from someone eating a bat in China, an assertion that scientists have not confirmed. But the idea has provided fodder for culturally insensitive jokes and ethic blaming for the fast-moving illness, which has already killed nearly 13,000 people worldwide (more than 200 in the United States).
Even after the Army post was deleted, it continued to draw condemnation from veterans groups and military advocates on social media for its insensitivity.
“This is simply unacceptable,” Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill. and an Iraq War veteran, wrote on Twitter in response to the post. “We do not know how COVID19 first infected humans but racism has no place in our Armed Forces.”
Army spokeswoman Col. Kathy Turner apologized for the post shortly after Duckworth’s tweet.
“The Army regrets the inappropriate post on Instagram related to the COVID19 response and the individual who posted it has been relieved,” she said in a statement.
“The post has been removed and we are taking action to ensure this doesn't happen again, including retraining for our social media personnel.”
Officials later posted the same message on the Instagram account.
The Instagram feed with the bat comment also included several other posts that were lambasted on social media, including one which seemed to imply children can’t get the illness (they can, although the risk appears greater for older adults) and another which joked about the shortage of toilet paper in response to the outbreak.
More than 75 million Americans are currently under at least partial quarantine orders from state officials. Earlier this month, military leadership shut down nearly all official domestic and international travel in response to the virus outbreak.
In a statement on the Army web site earlier this month, officials said that “force health protection is the Army’s top priority” regarding the virus outbreak and that work includes “ensuring personnel have the most up-to-date information on appropriate measures to prevent potential spread of COVID-19.”
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.