Vinay Menon: Now infected with COVID-19, CNN’s Chris Cuomo has become the most compelling voice on cable news

Chris Cuomo is what the world needs right now.

The CNN anchor and host of “Cuomo Prime Time” morphed from journalist to patient this week after testing positive for COVID-19. The news made me wince. In self-isolation, in between counting provisions and wondering when life will return to normal, we are all glued to the news.

When I close my eyes at night, it’s like Wolf Blitzer is cuddling me. It’s disturbing.

Trying to keep up with the real-time horrors of this once-in-a-generation catastrophe is like trying to count the polka dots on your shirt when your pants are on fire. It’s also a stark reminder that now, more than ever, we need reliable tour guides to navigate the unknown.

Media may not technically be an “essential service.” But right now, media is an essential service. And all I know is that, until his diagnosis, Cuomo put on a nightly clinic in how to have thoughtful discussions amid the unthinkable: a global pandemic turning the world upside down.

He asks the right questions. He gives context. He hurls himself at the daily file, not as an ideological warrior, but as a soldier in the almost quaint battle for truth and reality.

It is impossible to overstate how crucial this is right now.

So would the coronavirus make Cuomo vanish from the airwaves?

The answer, at least in the early days of his illness, is mercifully no.

On Tuesday night, hours after his diagnosis was made public, Cuomo broadcast live via a webcam from his basement bunker, where he is now in seclusion. He looked stirred, but not shaken. He said he was not the story, which oddly enough, made the story more human.

Two nights later, when he was interviewed by Anderson Cooper and Dr. Sanjay Gupta for a CNN Global Town Hall, Cuomo relayed his symptoms. He’s been running a high fever. He lost 13 pounds in three days. Then there are the hallucinations: “You have these wicked, phantasmagorical experiences that are not dreams.”

He saw his late father sitting on the end of his bed. He has shivered so much, he’s chipping teeth.

“The unknown is frightening,” he said. “And you lose any illusions about yourself real fast.”

What Cuomo established then and there was twofold.

He gave personal insights into a contagion now ravaging the planet.

But more important, he gave hope.

Now, obviously, I don’t want anyone to get infected. This pathogen is unpredictable. It can overwhelm and kill a host in a few days. Or it can produce no symptoms at all, riding from body to body along the tracks of community spread like a stowaway in an old Western.

But if any cable star had to get COVID-19, I’m glad it is Cuomo.

He is the standup guy needed as the world is falling down.

“Don’t be so afraid of this virus that it puts you into a panic and that it keeps you from making smart decisions,” he told viewers on Thursday. “Conversely, don’t make reckless decisions either, because you think you’ll breeze through.”

What do you want from someone in a disaster? You want clear thinking. You want perspective. You want no BS. And if possible, you want a bit of levity to alleviate the tension.

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Earlier on Thursday, via webcam, Chris crashed the daily press briefing of his older brother, New York governor Andrew Cuomo. At one point, he shared a fever dream starring his sibling.

“You had on a very interesting ballet outfit and you were dancing in the dream, and you were waving a wand and saying, ‘I wish I could wave my wand and make this go away.’ And then you spun around and you danced away.”

An exasperated Andrew smirked as Chris broke into uncontrollable laughter. Here were two brothers, one trying to manage one of the most dangerous hot zones in the world right now and the other actually infected with the virus, carrying on and trading barbs as if at a family picnic.

Chris Cuomo’s sense of humour will never require a ventilator.

“My wife is feeding me like, you know, we were still in the dating phase,” he told Cooper and Gupta on Thursday, who for a second looked confused until they both laughed.

The irony is that other cable personalities now seem way sicker than Cuomo.

The other night, Fox’s Tucker Carlson wondered why health officials are now guiding policy. I actually slapped my forehead. Right on, Tucker! Also, when a house is burning to the ground, why are unelected firefighters making the decisions? This is an outrage!

When we come out the other side of this pandemic, there will be time for a reckoning.

We will, quite easily, be able to identify the media tour guides who initially downplayed the risk and then attempted to inject misinformation or misdirection into the veins of the body politic. Take a bow, Sean Hannity. And you, Lou Dobbs.

But we will also marvel at how some tour guides tried to keep everyone safe by focusing on the facts and the science and the reality of a situation that changed by the hour. We will give thanks to those who told it like it was, not as how they preferred it might be for political purposes.

That is exactly why Chris Cuomo is now the most compelling voice on cable.

He’s no longer just reporting the story — he’s living it.

And his catchphrase, “Let’s get after it,” has never resonated more.

Vinay Menon

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