Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, conceals his face as President Donald Trump uses the term "Deep State Department" during a coronavirus press briefing on March 20.
The COVID-19 pandemic has already taken a serious human toll and rocked the global economy. Over the past month, the new and deadly strain of coronavirus has spread to almost every corner of the globe, prompting quarantine measures that have locked down daily life and halted the global circulation of goods and people. As much as it has strained the systems upon which we all depend, COVID-19 has exposed the incompetence of many of the world’s governments, which failed to take adequate precautions despite ample warnings from public health officials and scientists. Many politicians – and particularly the Trump administration in the United States – have cynically mobilized Sinophobia and racism to deflect blame from their own mishandling of the crisis. While it is too early to tell whether western populations will buy into this narrative en masse, the deployment of racist propaganda is a troubling forewarning of government strategy in the turbulent times to come.
The COVID-19 outbreak began in Wuhan, China in December 2019, when dozens of cases of pneumonia were first linked to a mysterious virus. By early January, coronavirus had already caused its first known death. Local officials in Hubei Province downplayed the threat of the outbreak in the early days, even going so far as to reprimand doctors for spreading “illegal and false” information. But heroic healthcare workers like Dr. Li Wenliang – who later died from the virus after treating patients – succeeded in raising the alarm despite these restrictions. By January 23, 2020, the Chinese government had instituted one of the largest quarantine in human history, locking down Wuhan and instituting severe restrictions on work and travel throughout much of a country of over 1.3 billion people. Massive resources were mobilized to expand hospital capacity, boost production of masks and other medical equipment, and distribute supplies to those who needed them. At the time of this writing, exactly two months later, China has seen normal life slowly restarting and the spread of the virus clearly deaccelerating, even if the official numbers are not fully accurate.
To be clear, the Chinese government did not handle the crisis perfectly. Early warning systems triggered too late to identify patient zero and isolate chains of contact. Local officials valued maintaining order and economic activity above human life – a theme that would repeat itself time and time again, country after country. It took less than a month from China’s recording its first-known cases to its establishment of a radical quarantine regime, which dramatically lowered the rate of the virus’ spread. In January, these measures were blithely characterized as signs of a “dangerous authoritarianism” in the many U.S. news outlets. Rather than being taken as signs of the outbreak’s seriousness, U.S. papers seemed to think it plausible that the Chinese government would nuke its own economy simply to exercise its authoritarian impulses.
For comparison, consider the U.S. government’s response to the crisis. The U.S. had its first confirmed case of the virus in Washington State by January 20, 2020. In February, hundreds of Americans were flown back to the country despite having been in Wuhan or testing positive for the virus. Over a month after the first U.S. case, the Trump administration asked for a paltry $1.25 billion in emergency funding. While they were reassuring the public about the government’s capacity to handle the virus, multiple U.S. Senators sold off their stock holdings following confidential intelligence briefings about the subject, open and brazen insider trading. As late as March 11th, New York City’s mayor was encouraging residents to “go out and eat at restaurants.” It took almost two months for many U.S. cities and states to start taking serious measures to control the virus’ spread. Even now, it is nearly impossible for most Americans to get tested for the coronavirus, after months of time to increase testing capacity have been squandered.
While the U.S. is something of an outlier in terms of its incompetence in handling the coronavirus, it is not alone in that regard. Unlike more prudent societies like South Korea, many western countries waited until the last possible moment before taking the necessary measures to respond to a serious virus pandemic. Governments that previously reassured their citizens about the virus’ likely severity, and a minimal economic impact, now have to face widespread anger as the true toll of the pandemic becomes known. Even in the face of full-blown outbreaks, many governments refuse to take much-needed action, such as nationalizing medical supply chains, ramping up production, and pouring resources into the expansion of healthcare capacity. For all these reasons, thousands and thousands of people will die unnecessarily in this unfolding tragedy.
The response of many right-wing politicians is as cynical as it is predictable. The Trump administration is pushing criticism of China to deflect blame from its epic mishandling of the crisis. Trump himself has repeatedly edited his statements to repeat the phrase “Chinese virus,” transparently attempting to associate a strain of flu with a nationality. In Europe, the unfolding pandemic has prompted the normalization of hysterical Sinophobia directed at anyone who looks vaguely Asian. The use of race-baiting to deflect from corruption, mismanagement, and economic turmoil is a strategy as old as time. But we should pay particular attention to attacking and defanging these strategies, given the extraordinary social dislocation that awaits us.
It is by now obvious that the global economy is heading into a crisis that will dwarf 2008 in scale. Indeed, the only comparison for the current supply shock and implosion of global financial markets seems to be the Great Depression. With U.S. economists predicting 20-30% official unemployment this year, and with other economies likely to suffer similar shocks, we are poised for social unrest on a scale as-yet unseen in our lifetimes. In order to prevent the rise of ultranationalist and fascist demagogues, racist lies need to be combatted aggressively, and blame must be placed where it belongs: with the politicians and elites who fiddled while the world burned.