Many opinion leaders, scientists, politicians and journalists think that the Covid-19 pandemic will create new geopolitical and social fault lines in our world. That is indeed worrisome.
Pre-Covid-19, an unpredictable trade war between the US and China had already taken centre stage in a multipolar world. Now, countries are singing more and more out of tune in the ways they are addressing the pandemic. While China, and many others, are calling for international cooperation to prioritise global public health, the West seems to think otherwise, and is now reaping the consequences of its own doings as a result of decades of neoliberal policies.
The figures are hitting home hard, but even more so is the trend of figures rising rapidly in America while falling in China.
In the US, the president is taken seriously by few people and a top scientist — Dr Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases — continually corrects him. In Europe, there is not one president, but roughly twenty, and they are all getting (and stumbling) in each other's way. A large part of the European house of cards is in danger of collapsing. Will there be a “new West”, as suggested increasingly by many thinkers, and as depicted in the closing scene of Once Upon a Time in the West, a 1968 film by the Italian director Sergio Leone?
Trump’s “Chinese virus” and its aftermath
On 26 March 2020, the US counted 85,505 infections by Covid-19 and 1,288 fatalities. (NB: The current figures as of 3 April stand at over 240,000 confirmed cases and 5900 deaths.) America now has more Covid-19 infections than China. The figures are hitting home hard, but even more so is the trend of figures rising rapidly in America while falling in China. It is a macabre catching-up process, if you will, the start of a repeat of a terrible and large-scale tragedy.
Barely a day later, President Trump tweeted: “Just finished a very good conversation with President Xi of China. Discussed in great detail the CoronaVirus that is ravaging large parts of our Planet. China has been through much & has developed a strong understanding of the Virus. We are working closely together. Much respect!”
Still, President Trump had a different discourse on China in recent weeks. He consistently stuck to calling the coronavirus “Chinese virus”. At a press briefing on 18 March, when asked why he kept using that term, the US President answered: “It [the virus] comes from China. That's why. It comes from China. I want to be accurate.”
"You yellow monkeys have no idea about hygiene" is what a Chinese-Dutch woman was told when she coughed, sitting on the train from The Hague to Delft.
Trump's vicious insistence on the term "Chinese virus" may have contributed to the violent outbreaks of racism against Chinese-Americans. Indicatively, there were 673 complaints lodged on the website Stop AAPI Hate (launched by the Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council and Chinese for Affirmative Action) between 19-25 March. The grievances ranged from refusal of service, verbal harassment, physical assault, to being coughed and spat on.
Such racist behaviour directed against the Chinese, and by extension Asians, has been spreading since the start of the pandemic. On social media in America and in Europe, news of racism has gone viral. More reports of racist conflicts keep cropping up, with some more violent than others. Just as their French counterparts did with their #JeNeSuisPasUnVirus (I am not a virus) campaign, in the Netherlands, Chinese-Dutch associations launched the petition "We are not viruses!" against hate speech and racist violence.
"You yellow monkeys have no idea about hygiene" is what a Chinese-Dutch woman was told when she coughed, sitting on the train from The Hague to Delft. In Amsterdam, a Chinese woman was pushed off her bicycle as “All Chinese have corona”. In London, an Asian student was hit badly by men shouting that they "didn't want corona in their country". In Italy, a Chinese man was cut with a glass after being denied access to a gas station “because he has the coronavirus”. The list of examples is long, as was evident from an online survey, drawn up by a Korean interpreter living in the Netherlands, with more than 150 responses and over 240 Facebook messages in no time.
Trump's political tactic of racism against China has international implications as well. At the video conference of the Group of Seven (G7) Foreign Ministers’ Meeting on 25 March, there was no final joint statement on fighting the Covid-19 virus together, because the US wanted to include the term “Wuhan virus” in the text.
The racist labelling of the deadly virus now seems to be coming to an end after the — possibly historic — telephone conversation on 27 March of Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping. “Best of friends” was the tone of President Trump's tweet on that day. And it was a return to better days, as this friendly tone was actually the one Trump has adopted in his external communications since the outbreak of the virus in Wuhan and regarding the Chinese government's firm approach.
The blame game gone wrong
Trump only started using the adjective "Chinese" since the virus began to spread in America and when the media began to criticise his initially slow response, says Dr Chi Wang, president of the US-China Policy Foundation. He writes in The Diplomat, “Calling the virus 'Chinese' served two purposes for Trump: first, it affixed blame for the crisis on China instead of the administration; second, it gave the media something to focus its ire on instead of the government’s response to the virus itself.” Blaming someone else is a known defence technique. It is used both by narcissists and by politicians to hide their own mistaken judgments.
Another of Trump's criticisms is about the Chinese government's "mishandling of the situation", which the US president often refers to in a foolishly gleeful way.
As the virus spreads in speed, during his press briefings or in his tweets, the president keeps hammering on the same nails. But instead of hitting the nail on the head he appears only to split hairs. Trump’s story is that China had informed the world far too late.
China first reported to the World Health Organisation (WHO) China Country Office that a pneumonia of unknown cause was detected in Wuhan on 31 December 2019. As early as January, US intelligence agencies warned that the coronavirus would spread around the world . President Trump, however, initially treated it as the usual flu, downplaying the danger of the virus along with other well-known Republicans who dismissed it as a hoax, a move by Democrats to thwart Trump’s re-election.
Another of Trump's criticisms is about the Chinese government's "mishandling of the situation", which the US president often refers to in a foolishly gleeful way. However, according to the 16-24 February report of the WHO-China Joint Mission, “China has rolled out perhaps the most ambitious, agile and aggressive disease containment effort in history”.
It has gradually become clear that the Chinese government indeed, for the most part, acted as adequately and decisively as possible, thereby gaining time for many other countries to prepare for the assault of the deadly virus. President Trump, unfortunately, like many other government leaders, has squandered that lead time and the consequences are developing dramatically.
A difficult situation in the US
In many Western countries, where neoliberal recipes have been used for economic growth and development, government budgets are cut, public services are restructured and public health services are downsized. The effects of which have become painfully evident in recent weeks.
In America, government money for social services has been meagre for many years. Especially now, it is horrible to witness how a reasonable plan to provide the weakest groups in society with a social safety net, is disposed of by an allergic reaction to any hint of "socialism". Unsurprisingly, Covid-19 is wreaking havoc. Dr. Anthony Fauci, who has been a leading voice in the US effort to curb the outbreak, says 100,000 to 200,000 Americans could die before the crisis is over.
Such centrally-led economic intervention is quite unimaginable!
Just like in Europe, there has been a desperate hunt for medical quality and highly specialised masks, there is a severe shortage of medical protective gears and clothings, and also intensive care beds and ventilators ... and now President Trump is imposing "quasi-socialist" measures on American capitalism.
Just like China, America is freeing up a gigantic sum of money to pump into the economy along the lines of a US$2.2 trillion emergency relief package. Auto giant GM is compelled by Trump to produce ventilators under the Defence Production Act — a Korean War-era law that in recent times has mostly been used for national security and defence purposes. Such centrally-led economic intervention is quite unimaginable!
And the common American will not be forgotten: everyone is getting up to US$1200 as part of the relief package. That sounds substantial, but many already know that this will not be sufficient to swallow the bitter pill.
Kaiser Family Foundation research finds that patients admitted for Covid-19 treatment with employer insurance may have to pay at least US$1,300 out of pocket. Millions of Americans without insurance are expected to fork out much more. And nothing is said about the more than 10 million undocumented immigrants. The lack of a strong social security safety net in the US will soon cause a hellish social earthquake.
US-China collaboration has seen better days
China, Trump argues, withholds scientific information, and is not willing to exchange them. But it is precisely Trump who has curtailed the open channels through which China and the US collaborate on medical and scientific research.
One cannot dismiss the possibility of its effect on the US’s ability to receive timely reports on developments of the coronavirus.
Cost-cutting measures in the US have severely undermined the CDC’s collaboration capacity. Writing in the Washington Post, Deborah Seligsohn, assistant professor of political science at Villanova University who was the environment, science, technology and health counsellor at the US embassy in Beijing from 2003 to 2007, said that the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) used to have as many as 10 American experts and 40 local staff in China, but since the Trump administration took over, staff strength has been whittled down to three US experts and a few local staff.
Reuters reported that a CDC epidemiologist expert role placed within the Chinese CDC was cut just before the Covid-19 outbreak. One cannot dismiss the possibility of its effect on the US’s ability to receive timely reports on developments of the coronavirus.
US superiority undermines solidarity
An undercurrent of negativity runs through the West’s dealings with China. This favours the deadly Covid-19.
A superiority mindset and the deliberate instrumentalisation of anti-Chinese racism are more than counterproductive. Instead of promoting cooperation and solidarity in order to fight the Coronavirus as vigorously as possible, time and focus are lost and tens of thousands of people are dying.
Trump's mentality of playing at war and bullying the enemy has to stop right away. He had better substitute his “keeping US Covid-19 deaths to 100,000 would be a ‘very good job’” attitude for a firm approach with the real ambition of saving human lives globally together. It would especially be in the interest of the least socially strong Americans, who have put their hope in this president, a president that has now degenerated into the unpredictable conductor of a stripped-down orchestra.
As we were finishing our analysis, we got the latest news and it seems to be moving towards what we have been hoping for. Five world leaders, King Abdullah II of Jordan and presidents Frank-Walter Steinmeier of Germany, Halimah Yacob of Singapore, Sahle-Work Zewde of Ethiopia and Lenín Moreno Garcés of Ecuador, are urging for worldwide cooperation in fighting the Covid-19. Cooperation instead of competition. We dare to translate this into: "Stop bashing China".
Last week’s conversation between the leaders of the two countries has been followed up with a promise of cooperation from health officials. Chinese Health Minister Ma Xiaowei and US Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar had a phone conversation on 30 March. Ma told Azar that China was willing to work with the US and “join hands in supporting the international efforts in curbing the pandemic to maintain global health security”. This call between China’s health minister and his US counterpart is their first telephone exchange since January. And it counts as a first move towards medical cooperation between the two countries after last week’s phone call between Chinese President Xi Jinping and his US counterpart Donald Trump, when both leaders agreed they must work together to contain the spread of the virus.
This gives cause for hope and it needs to be continued.
The blame game continues between China and the US. While the “Chinese virus” narrative is seeing some rest, the US is upping the ante with news of US intelligence reports showing that the Chinese had concealed the extent of the Covid-19 outbreak in China. The report alleges that the Chinese numbers are false. In response, the Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Hua Chunying said yesterday that “China has been giving open, transparent and timely updates to the world”.
Meanwhile, the US seems to be coming round to the idea of corralling international support for fighting the pandemic. It has been working together with China to bring much-needed medical supplies from China to the US, and even Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who has taken a harsh tone with China, seems to have stopped using “Wuhan virus” and started stressing the importance of international institutions such as the WHO.
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