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Opinion: Fighting or floundering: China, the US and COVID-19

China Plus Published: 2020-05-15 22:59:40

A patient is loaded into an ambulance on March 10, 2020 at the Life Care Center in Kirkland, Washington, near Seattle. The nursing home is at the center of an outbreak of the coronavirus in the state. [Photo: AP]

A patient is loaded into an ambulance on March 10, 2020 at the Life Care Center in Kirkland, Washington, near Seattle. The nursing home is at the center of an outbreak of the coronavirus in the state. [Photo: AP]

By Harvey Dzodin

It’s fair to say that everyone on our fragile planet is laser-focused on returning to life as we knew it by permanently stopping COVID-19 in its lethal tracks and simultaneously rebuilding our economies which are currently on life support. Because there is as-yet no clear path to either goal, I have been thinking about how China and the US are performing relative to each other.The contrast couldn’t be more stark.

The leader of one country and its 1.4 billion people follow the maxim that “when the going gets tough, the tough get going” and people there largely escaped untold personal and economic damage. The leader of the other country, however, continues to selfishly play re-election politics, engages in happy talk and conspiracy theories and after being put on notice that a health emergency was imminent, took no action for many weeks and said that he bore “no responsibility at all” and in doing so not only divided its more than 330 million people into warring tribes but through purposeful inaction at the beginning and reckless action to open the economy weeks later, killed tens of thousands who died needlessly.

Chinese central government leaders acted expeditiously and decisively after they learned of the novel coronavirus, even sacking lower-level officials for not adequately serving the people. It’s uncontested that China cooperated with the World Health Organization by making public the identification of the novel coronavirus last December 31st and provided the genome’s sequencing, the pre-requisite for developing both diagnostic testing and treatments, a mere ten days later.

Using crystal clear 20/20 hindsight makes it easy for demagogues to point fingers at those in the middle of a once-in-a-lifetime massive and overwhelming health crisis, but even the most jaundiced analyst has to concede that China’s leaders and its people have now sufficiently subdued this frighteningly clever invisible enemy until short-term treatments such as antibody injections or longer-term vaccines come on-stream. Until then, citizens will have to exercise extreme caution and scrupulously follow strict enforcement measures. Occasional hotspots will have to be dealt with aggressively. Under these circumstances, people in China are already breathing easier and returning to work and relative normalcy. China has chosen to find the sweet spot between protecting precious lives and carefully restarting its economy. April exports in fact rose by 3 ½ per cent from a year earlier, surprising some analysts.

Compare this with the United States where President Trump was hoping to power a re-election victory based on a record high economy and stock market, coupled with a record low unemployment rate (not all of which was his doing, but for which he took full credit). Trump first learned of the seriousness of the virus that was ravaging Wuhan and surrounding Hubei province from intelligence sources starting in early January, as well as from trusted White House aides Peter Navarro and Matthew Pottinger later that month. Realizing that the profound economic impact of the virus could doom his re-election, Trump was facing an unprecedented personal situation. Previously, he could always badger, belittle and browbeat his opponents. You could see how he bent the Republican party to his will, almost overnight. A party that believed in free trade was suddenly protectionist. A party that hated deficit spending racked up record deficits. A party that was responsible for America’s outreach to China in the 1970s was suddenly now casting China as a major villain. Trump, however, never faced an adversary like this virus. In point of fact, except for diversionary scapegoating and deception, his tool cabinet was empty.

So Trump tried to ignore the coming storm and did nothing whatsoever to prepare for it until mid-March, more than two full months from when multiple alarms started sounding. For example, on January 30th one day after Navarro sent Trump his report warning of extreme disaster Trump said: “We have it very well under control.” On February 10th he said that it “looks like by April, you know, in theory, when it gets a little warmer, it miraculously goes away”.

It didn’t miraculously go away. The US needed test kits and the WHO had them but Trump declined and the US produced faulty kits. Without testing, there can be no containing the virus. He advised people to drink bleach or take dangerous medicines only approved for other conditions.

In addition, when he should have been providing leadership, and cooperating with China and other countries to fight a common enemy he used his energy to play a blame game about the origins of the virus and demonized the WHO, in both of which he persists.

Trump can spin the situation all he wants but the facts speak for themselves.

With 1.3 million reported cases, the US, with 5% of the world’s population, has nearly one-third of global cases. With more than 80,000 US deaths, it’s also the highest. No country comes close on all three measures. Globally, the average death rate is 34 people per million residents. in the US, it’s about seven times higher.

The numbers speak eloquently of the Herculean efforts by relatively few in China on behalf of the many but they speak poorly for the US leadership under Trump and his acolytes. As of May 11th China with four times the US population had less than 6% of the deaths suffered in the US. If you look at the charts, the US has the highest rising curve with cases and deaths rising. By contrast, China has dramatically flattened its curve.

It’s going to get a lot worse before it gets better because Trump is pushing aggressively to open the economy in hopes it will improve before the November 3rd election. With insufficient testing, and lack of will and social distancing, tens of thousands more innocent people will perish. Estimates from models now forecast at least 137,000 people will die in the US by early August.

Trump has also ordered meat-packing plants to re-open on grounds of national defense. He really loves his hamburgers but unfortunately he’s mostly feeding the virus as those plants are the source of many new COVID-19 hotspots with workers unable to social distance in the ideal refrigerated temperatures in which the virus thrives.

Even the inner sanctums of the White House aren’t immune. Since most of Trump’s closest advisors follow his mask-less lead, several have tested positive for the virus, and several others are in some stage of quarantine from exposure to those who tested positive. If the president is the country’s #1 opinion leader, it’s easy to see why mortality rates are heading skyward.

And even worse, since Trump has widened the tribal gap in America he is not only encouraging people not to wear masks but is encouraging the lunatic fringe of anti-vaxxers. These are people who distrust government and think scientifically proven vaccines are evil. They will find ways to avoid being inoculated and leave vulnerable innocent people at risk. As one of them in Texas said “over my dead body”.

COVID-19, China versus the US, the facts speak for themselves.

Note: Harvey Dzodin is a Senior Fellow of the Center for China and Globalization. The article reflects the author’s own views.

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