A popular narrative of the coronavirus pandemic, pushed by US President Donald Trump and his supporters, is that it is all China’s fault because its leaders in Beijing lied.
China’s leaders knew early on that the virus was transmitted person-to-person by air, critics say, but have not released this information to the public. Chinese President Xi Jinping has been briefed on the seriousness of the threat to a meeting in january but he was publicly silent for days. And Xi continued to insist everything was under control, even though the virus was spreading rapidly.
Now it looks like the same narrative can be applied to Trump.
Thanks to the new book Rage by seasoned journalist (and my former boss) Bob Woodward, we now know that Trump learned at a Jan.28 briefing that the United States was facing the biggest pandemic since the Spanish blur of 1918, but he has continued to publicly downplay the threat. He knew the virus was suspended in the air and spread from person to person, but he avoided wearing a mask and told people to go about their business. He continued to insist that everything was under control, even as the virus hit U.S. shores and spread rapidly.
Now, it increasingly appears that the high death toll and infection rate in the United States is not due to Xis Lie, but to Trumps.
The United States is approaching 6.6 million infections and 200,000 deaths. Despite Trump’s optimistic predictions about the virus being extinct or an imminent vaccine, most public health experts expect infections and deaths to continue to rise, helped by colder weather and the flu seasonal. Dr Anthony Fauci, the administration’s infectious disease expert, said Americans shouldn’t expect the previrus to return to normal until 2021 at the earliest.
It didn’t have to be that way.
From a Hong Kong perspective, the United States had a lot of warning signs and preparation time, if anyone had paid attention.
On January 23, even the notoriously secretive leaders of the Chinese Communist Party vowed to admit any mistakes and more concerned with saving face than lives admitted there was a problem. They instituted a strict lockdown on Wuhan City, the epicenter of the virus, and surrounding Hubei province.
Five days later, on January 28, even the unpopular Hong Kong CEO Carrie Lam admitted there was a danger to public health and partially closed the border territories with China. February 3, she gave in to public pressure and closed more crossings. Hong Kong recorded its first death from coronavirus a day later.
In early February, after the Chinese New Year holidays, Hong Kong people almost universally began to wear face masks. For a few weeks, masks and even toilet paper became precious commodities. I started calling and sending WhatsApp emails and messages to friends in Singapore, Paris, New York and Maine asking them to find face masks and mail them to me in Hong Kong.
In those early days, the reaction to our panic here was often more amusing than concerned. Instead of preparing for the pandemic, Americans were sending out chains of email jokes and internet memes about all the fun things people in Asia used for masks. One of them showed an Asian man carrying a large plastic water jug on his head. Another was a photo of a young woman reusing a pair of pink panties. Oranges, trash bags, bra cups, and diapers have all become home-made masks and a source of fun in the United States.
Instead of preparing, the Americans laughed.
With thought leadership, Americans could have used the month of February to stock up on personal protective equipment, to ensure hospital ventilators were evenly distributed, to build isolation wards, to designate centers. quarantine and to develop a nationwide tracing system to trace close contacts of anyone found infected. . But what was happening here in Asia was not a warning sign, it was the butt of jokes.
The reasons are many, but can mainly be attributed to pride. Americans have a sometimes mistaken view of their own exceptionalism. There is a feeling that two great oceans protect the United States from the ravages of the world. And there is a pitiful dearth of international news and a lack of attention or interest in anything happening beyond the coasts of the Americas. If anyone had paid the slightest attention to the news coming from China and Hong Kong in January and February, the lethality of Covid-19, the fact that it was in flight and the effectiveness of the mask wearing would not have been surprising.
While most of the blame rests with Trump as president, Democrats are not immune to criticism. In this year’s first Democratic presidential debates, the looming pandemic was hardly worth mentioning. In late April, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, whose daily press briefings became viewers, dramatically announced this shock of a revelation: the virus could live up to three days on stainless steel surfaces, and could linger in the air for hours.
This news was well known in Hong Kong since early February, which is why we started carrying small bottles of hand sanitizer, avoiding heavily affected surfaces, regularly sanitizing offices and public toilets and most importantly, by wearing masks outside the house.
China is not blameless in this pandemic. Wuhan’s initial removal of information from doctors and failure to lock down the city earlier, before the peak Chinese New Year period, may well have contributed to the global spread. The first actions of Chinese officials should be fully investigated and China should be held responsible for any willful missteps or intentional cover-ups.
But while China hesitated in December and the first half of January, the United States hesitated in late January and all of February, when the facts were clearly known. Confirmation of this comes directly from Trumps’ interviews with Woodward.
You just breathe the air and that’s how it went Trump said at Woodward on February 7. It’s also deadlier than even your tiring flu, Trump added. These are deadly things.
Another takeaway from the Woodwards book, also pointed out by the former national security adviser John bolton and in many other accounts, is Trumps craze for strong autocratic men like North Korea Kim Jung-un, Russians Vladimir Putin, turkeys Recep Tayyip Erdogan and, of course, Xi Jinping.
But Xi has demonstrated how a strongman really acts in a crisis, taking responsibility and instituting one of the world’s toughest lockdowns in Wuhan and other affected areas. If Trump had really wanted to emulate Xi, he could have declared a national emergency and ordered the lockdown of hard-hit cities and states. He could have used the Defense Production Act to speed up the manufacture of ventilators, test kits and personal protective equipment. He could have converted all government labs and private labs receiving federal funding into a coronavirus testing lab. He might have formed a huge civilian body of research, to follow any infected person and their close contacts.
A difficult Wuhan-style lockdown would have sparked howls of objections and multiple court challenges and was likely to have been overturned. But Trump could have presented himself as the tough guy willing to take tough action. And a strict lockdown after the first U.S. coronavirus death in late February would likely have lasted two months and flattened the infection curve, allowing a reopening in May or June, as happened in China.
Now Wuhan is open, life came back and schools reopened. The city that was once synonymous with viruses and death has just hosted a huge pool party with all the guests unmasked. The United States, meanwhile, has 30,000 new cases and hundreds of deaths a day, with no end in sight.
As Trump campaigns for re-election, he continues to blame Xi and China for the toll the virus has inflicted on America. Instead, he should look at himself in the mirror.
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