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Foreign Policy

U.S. and China in the Time of COVID-19

May 14 , 2020

The world seems to be on a precipice since the coronavirus emerged from a market in Wuhan, China. It has since spilled across the globe, bringing fear with it as the virus takes its toll both physically and psychologically.

The crisis quickly morphed into a global pandemic, splashing over us all and cascading economies, caused by a rapidly tanking stock market. Stock market gains of the last 3 years in the U.S. have seemingly evaporated, and family savings are circling the drain as the uncertainty of when this pandemic might end frenzies people throughout the country.

In a rational world, such a crisis might drive us to all work together. In this time of peril, building bridges is better than erecting walls. And, with the U.S.-China bilateral relationship being the most important in the world today, all major world issues intersect at the corner of Beijing and Washington, D.C. How our respective leaders manage this relationship will impact the people of the U.S., China, and all of humanity.

Yet, instead of working together, Presidents Trump and Xi are busy trying to shift the blame onto each other, stoking nationalist pride in their efforts to deflect both governments’ initial botched efforts at combatting the virus onto each other.

There is no doubt that China’s slow response in alerting the world to the virus that morphed into the pandemic was a problem. This situation hampered a quicker response from both the Chinese and the rest of the world.

Pointing fingers is not the intent of this article, and history will have a way of sorting out the facts from political spin and propaganda on both sides of the ocean. Yet it is clear that on December 30, Dr. Li Wenliang attempted to warn his medical school classmates in an online chat group about a mysterious illness that had sickened seven people in Wuhan, China. Rather than being thanked, he was “invited to tea”, a euphemism for being questioned by the police. Police in Wuhan made Doctor Li admit to lying about the existence of a worrying new virus in the city. Li died on February 7 after contracting the virus.

A Wall Street Journal report recounts a picture in Wuhan that reveals early missteps, a lack of transparency, cover-up, and intimidation dating back to the very first patients. These issues were compounded by local political leaders who dragged their feet to inform the public of the risks until the central government took full and decisive measures of control.

Zhong Nanshan, a highly regarded epidemiologist and head of the COVID-19 task force at the National Health Commission, said that the virus was identified by Dec. 31, but the confirmation of the virus’ human-to-human transfer was delayed. If action had been taken earlier in December or even early January, “the number of sick would have been greatly reduced,” he said.

In an award that puts an exclamation point on the phrase “too little too late”, China declared whistleblower doctor Li Wenliang a “martyr”. Being declared a martyr is the highest honor the Communist Party of China can bestow upon a citizen killed working to serve the country. The country honored Dr. Li with three minutes of silence.

There is irony in this highest honor that was given to Dr. Li – 3 minutes of silence, when his voice got him in trouble.

Back In America

We have since learned that the U.S. government’s hesitancy in addressing the crisis also put more Americans at risk. It is now being revealed that while the scientific, health, and intelligence communities rang the alarm bells about the coming pandemic earlier in the year, our president continued to downplay the situation. His continuing rants about the media’s “fake news” and the virus being a “hoax” – even as the crisis brewed – cost our country many weeks that could have been used to prepare.

President Trump was aware of the serious threat of the sweeping coronavirus pandemic long before he took action, which has created an enormous mess in America.

There were major decisions – or no decisions – in Washington that set the stage for the disastrous response, which include:

1. Gutting the CDC and the Federal government pandemic teams
2. Ignoring the early signs of a crisis – denial was pervasive for weeks.
3. Still not setting up a national approach for testing and the supply of PPE and other critical supplies not only to healthcare, but also to businesses that want to reopen.
4. Ignoring the need for a well-coordinated public health infrastructure for data management and contact tracing.

This lack of readiness is now being played out on the nightly news as healthcare providers and governors from both political parties continue to warn of the short supply of testing equipment, basic health protection masks, eye guards and gowns, and the crucial ventilators that are needed to treat people.

The president has forcefully pushed back on these reports with his usual decry of “fake news”. To be clear, “fake news” is simply news he does not wish to hear. The reality is that there exists a real fear of life or death with healthcare rationing taking place as hospitals are overwhelmed and overrun with COVID-19 patients.

President Trump and the China hawks in his administration and Congress are also using the virus to infect the American people with a fear of China. Trump has repeatedly referred to the virus as the “China virus”, bringing condemnation from those who see this as a thinly-veiled continuation of xenophobia, even as Trump defends his comments, saying, “It’s not racist at all.”

The Trump/GOP blame game is an attempt to divert the American public’s attention away from “YUGE” mistakes being made here at home. It is a key Trump/GOP 2020 campaign strategy to scare the American voters.

Lately, China, too, has also been just as forceful in inflaming conspiracies and the division between China and the U.S. Lilian Zhao, a spokesman at the Chinese Foreign Ministry department, has made unfounded claims, saying, “It might be U.S. Army who brought the epidemic to Wuhan. Be transparent! Make public your data! U.S. owes us an explanation!"

This tit-for-tat game, where one nation must be up while the other is down, is not helping combat the virus or its effects on the global economy.

Come Together

At a time when the world needs China and America to come together to defeat the health pandemic and reignite the global economy, our respective leaders have retreated to their respective nationalistic corners, “promoting division just as we need unity.”

Given the level of integration between our two countries, we are not going to prevent China’s rise without inflicting corresponding damage to our own, at least in the short run. In fact, we may need to once again turn to China to buy our debt that now sits at one trillion dollars. President Trump recently signed a two trillion-dollar economic bailout for U.S. workers and business to help with the coronavirus financial hemorrhage taking place. We need bilateral cooperation, and in this time of national and economic strain, it seems counterintuitive to pit the two countries against each other. Could China have been more transparent sooner and forthright? Absolutely. But blame is not a strategy – it does not address Americans needs.

It was not one lone decision that allowed this virus to get out of hand and silently spread around the world and back again. I suspect we will see the tyranny of small and large decisions, both in the US and China, that could add up to monumental and deadly consequences on a global scale.

It would be wise for both Presidents Trump and Xi to stop the blame game and nationalistic rhetoric that is harming us all. When China and America cooperate and seek win-win relations, we are all better for it with a stabilized global order. Let’s work together to build up our respective nations and the world post-COVID-19.

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