WASHINGTON DC: A pandemic is enveloping the world, endangering the lives and livelihoods of millions of people, and US President Donald Trump is thinking about how to get the upper hand vis-a-vis China.
But his obsession with winning this great-power competition – exemplified by his administration’s petty insistence on calling COVID-19 the “Chinese virus” or the “Wuhan virus” – is making victory less likely every day.
Nobody doubts that the COVID-19 coronavirus first appeared in China. Nor does anyone deny that Chinese bureaucrats were wrong to suppress information about it early on, rather than taking immediate action to contain it.
But, for most of the world, what matters is not so much where the pandemic started, but how it will end. And, as it stands, China is doing a lot more to help end the outbreak than the United States is.
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COVID-19 RESPONSE: CHINA VS US
Despite their early missteps, it did not take long for China’s leaders to recognise their initial mistake and take decisive action. The government sealed off affected areas, locked down a huge swath of the population, built designated COVID-19 hospitals, and ramped up production of necessary equipment, including test kits, masks and ventilators.
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The lockdowns may have been draconian, but China’s strategy seems to have worked. Within a few weeks, new infections began to decline, and new local infections have reportedly stopped. Steps are now being taken to ease the lockdown.
Unlike China, the US had plenty of warning that COVID-19 was coming. But, rather than take action, Trump downplayed the threat, dithered before fulfilling his pledge to use the Defense Production Act to force private companies to manufacture vital equipment, and refused to impose a nationwide shelter-in-place order.
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Moreover, apparently fearing for his re-election prospects amid economic crisis, Trump announced his intention to “reopen” the US economy by Easter, only to reverse himself as the number of cases and deaths soared.
Simply put, he has prioritised politics over public health – precisely what he criticised Chinese officials for doing when COVID-19 emerged. The World Health Organization’s recent warning that the US could become the new epicentre of the pandemic seems to have been borne out: The country now has the world’s highest number of cases.
CHINA’S INTERNATIONAL PROFILE
Meanwhile, parts of Europe are struggling to cope with the outbreak, with Italy and Spain having now surpassed China in COVID-19 deaths.
This, together with Trump’s leadership failures, has lent credence to claims that China’s state-led governance model is better equipped than democratic systems – often politically deadlocked and dysfunctional – to respond to “black swans” (major unexpected shocks).
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The US may succeed in its bid to prevent its allies from adopting Chinese telecommunications technology. But it cannot stop the world from emulating China’s approach to public health or social organisation if it proves effective during the COVID-19 crisis. And, so far, China’s track record is pretty convincing.
Photographs of planeloads of Chinese doctors and medical equipment arriving in places like Rome and Tehran, disseminated across social media worldwide, have raised China’s international profile further.
Now, countries are seeking China’s help. After the European Union reduced exports of medical equipment, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic appealed to “his friend and brother,” Chinese President Xi Jinping to provide the necessary goods. A few days later, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen publicly thanked China for its contributions.
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Nobody has asked – let alone thanked – the US for anything. And the US has not offered anything, driving home the utter lack of empathy on the part of Trump’s “America First” administration.
In fact, the Trump administration has actively undermined countries’ ability to respond to the humanitarian crisis. Not only has it refused to ease sanctions on Cuba, Iran, and Venezuela; it likely contributed to the International Monetary Fund’s decision not to provide a US$5 billion emergency loan to Venezuela.
What the Trump administration seems not to understand is that any country that fails to contain the virus keeps the entire world at risk. Retaining sanctions that cripple health-care systems, such as in Iran (the third-most-affected country), is not only morally reprehensible; it undermines America’s own interests, both by enabling the virus to continue to spread and by reinforcing the image of the US as a villain.
Meanwhile, China – along with Russia – has urged the US to change its approach.
But the US is not only indifferent to the suffering of its adversaries; it also has little concern for its allies. Beyond offering zero assistance to its European partners, the Trump administration abruptly and unilaterally barred most European visitors from entering the US for 30 days – a move that caught European leaders by surprise, and which they roundly condemned.
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Even more infuriating, however, was Trump’s brazen and predatory reported effort to secure rights to any COVID-19 vaccine developed by the German company CureVac (a US official called the report “wildly overplayed”).
Europe is by now accustomed to Trump’s animus, but this was a bridge too far. There is no longer any shadow of a doubt that the EU cannot trust the US, let alone depend on it. Both China and Russia have long dreamed of such a transatlantic rift.
As Trump fusses over semantics in a transparent and pathetic effort to shift blame for his own inept leadership, China is laying the groundwork for global leadership in the post-COVID-19 era. Thanks to Trump, the US will almost certainly lose the great-power competition – and countless lives.
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Vali Nasr is Professor of Middle East Studies and International Affairs at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.