Tilting at windmills

Political expediency makes U.S. President Donald Trump shift the blame on China and then on the WHO for the poor handling of the COVID-19 crisis.

Published : Apr 21, 2020 07:00 IST

Chinese President Xi Jinping, a March 10 photograph.

Chinese President Xi Jinping, a March 10 photograph.

THE Donald Trump administrationwill never accept responsibility for the thousands of deaths caused by the coronavirus in the United States. The country has suffered the largest number of casualties so far, already surpassing Italy and Spain. Trump had been ignoring the warnings sent by his senior advisers and administration officials since the beginning of the year. The U.S. National Security Council Office, which is responsible for keeping a lookout for pandemics, had received intelligence reports in the first week of January that COVID-19 was on its way to the country. Soon after, it was suggested to Trump that he should consider closing down big cities such as New York and Chicago.

Peter Navarro, Trump’s chief adviser on trade issues, submitted a memo in late January detailing the risks posed by the coronavirus. Navarro warned that the coronavirus had the potential to cause up to half a million deaths and a loss of $3 trillion to the U.S. economy. By February, the top health officials in the Trump administration were all urging the President to take preventive measures urgently. But Trump, encouraged by his evangelical Christian base and alt-right commentators from Fox News and Breitbart, did not take the threat posed by the pandemic seriously. In one of his press conferences, Trump predicted that the virus would go away by April “when it gets a little warmer”.

On February 25, Nancy Messonnier, the Director of the U.S.’ National Centre for Immunisation and Respiratory Diseases, with the tacit support of senior colleagues like Dr Anthony Fauci, the Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, issued a public warning about the imminent danger that the pandemic posed to the citizenry. (Fauci admitted in mid-April that the U.S. government should have acted sooner in response to COVID-19 and saved lives in the process.)

Trump, who was returning from India, was furious that Nancy Messonnier had made the statement without the White House’s approval. The statement had a negative impact on the stock market, which fell to a historical low. The President was betting on a booming economy and a stock market to win a second term in office. By the time he acted in mid-March, it was too late. People had started dying in droves and the economy started imploding. Masks, ventilators and other medical equipment were in short supply as the administration had ignored warnings by its own medical experts and made very little preparation.

When things started going out of control, the top echelons of the Trump administration began in right earnest to target China. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo started calling COVID-19 “the Wuhan virus”. Trump went a step further and called it the “Chinese virus”. He accused China of concealing the outbreak after it was first detected. Senator Tom Cotton, a close political ally of Trump, said that the coronavirus might have escaped from a biosecurity laboratory in Wuhan.

Trump’s Deputy National Security Adviser, Matthew Pottinger, a right-winger who has hawkish views on China, initially encouraged the conspiracy theory. He played an important role in pushing the Trump administration to blame China for the spread of the virus.

In a tit-for-tat response to the continuous baiting by Trump and his senior officials, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, Zhao Lijian, tweeted in mid-March that the coronavirus might have been inadvertently introduced in Wuhan by a visiting U.S. Army team participating in the world military games last year.

But the Chinese side did not waste much time in defusing the escalating diplomatic tensions. The Chinese Ambassador to the U.S., Cui Tiankai, publicly disavowed the conspiracy theories being propagated on both sides. Cui said that it was “very harmful” for diplomats and journalists to comment on the origins of the virus.

The Chinese Ambassador’s statement led to a temporary halt in the mutual recriminations and to an exchange of phone calls between Trump and Xi. According to the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, they agreed that “under the current circumstances, China and the United States should stand united and fight the COVID-19 menace”. Xi told Trump that Beijing had maintained “a transparent and responsible attitude” while sharing information about the coronavirus.

For the record, China informed the World Health Organisation (WHO) just before New Year’s Eve about a mysterious pneumonia outbreak spreading in Wuhan, an industrial city with a population of over 11 million. On January 3, the head of the U.S.’ Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) received a call and an official letter from his Chinese counterpart, warning about a dangerous virus detected in the city. On January 11, China shared the genetic sequence of the virus with the U.S. authorities.

By the end of January, the Trump administration sent two of its own senior virologists to China to study the situation first hand. When Trump was in Davos in the beginning of the year, he was full of praise for Xi’s handling of the situation. On January 24, a month after the virus was discovered, Trump tweeted that China “was working very hard to contain the coronavirus” and that the U.S. “greatly appreciates their efforts and transparency”.

During his last conversation with Trump in March, Xi also offered to share the expertise China had gained from combating the virus and also promised to dispatch much-needed medical supplies to the U.S. Trump on his part said that he had “a good conversation” with Xi. Vital supplies are still being flown in from China as the death rates keep on increasing in the U.S. This fact has not gone down well with the anti-China hawks in the Trump administration. A donation of much-needed face masks from China was kept waiting for more than a month as senior Trump administration officials debated whether or not to allow Beijing to advertise the generosity of the Chinese people to the American public.

Many in the Trump administration claim that China is trying to divert attention from its alleged “mishandling of the pandemic” in its initial stages by indulging in donor diplomacy. China being the first state to almost fully recover from the pandemic is once again becoming the “factory of the world”. Many leading U.S. politicians have welcomed China’s help. Among them is Andrew Cuomo, the Governor of the State of New York, the worst affected so far in the U.S.

Washington has been furiously trying to corner critical medical supplies meant for other countries. The Italian, French, German and Canadian governments are among those who have complained that supplies they had ordered from China and elsewhere were diverted to the U.S. The U.S. government had outbid other governments in its attempt to procure emergency medical supplies.

India’s capitulation

The Trump administration arm-twisted the Indian government to lift the ban on the export of hydroxychloroquine that is used for the treatment of malaria and many other serious diseases. Trump, without the authorisation of medical professionals and scientists, has been touting it as a cure for the coronavirus. After Trump threatened India of consequences if it did not lift the ban, the Modi government capitulated. As a face-saver, it announced that it was sending the medicine to a few other countries. Iran and Venezuela, which are under U.S. sanctions, are excluded from the list of recepients.

One of the recipients is Israel. The country has used its intelligence agency, Mossad, to run covert operations from early March to hoard limited lifesaving medical materiel such as ventilators, coronavirus testing kits and masks. According to a report in The New York Times , the Mossad’s attempts to smuggle a huge consignment of sanitisers from India was thwarted.

Trump has not used the offending term “Chinese virus” since his conversation with Xi so far. Instead, he has turned his focus on the WHO, the nodal organisation trying to coordinate the global response to the pandemic. In the first week of April, Trump, for the first time, accused the WHO of “totally mishandling” the response to the coronavirus and giving “bad advice” to the international community. They “totally blew it,” the U.S. President alleged, saying that the organisation should have declared the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic much earlier.

The WHO declared the coronavirus “a pandemic” only on March 11. But it had declared the coronavirus a “public health emergency of international concern” on January 30 itself. It has been keeping the American side in the loop from the outset. Anthony Fauci and Robert Redfield, the head of the CDC, were regularly in touch with the WHO since January. The WHO had been advising from that time onwards the urgent need for identifying and isolating COVID-19 cases. The Trump administration, like many other governments in the world, did not heed the advice.

On April 14, the Trump administration took the unprecedented step of completely suspending U.S. contributions to the WHO when it is in the midst of the battle against COVID-19. Trump had threatened to take this action in early April but better sense temporarily prevailed. While making the announcement in the second week of April, Trump said that the WHO had “failed in its basic duty and it must be held accountable” and that it had become “China-centric” in its functioning. The U.S. President did not bother to explain what he meant by the WHO being “China-centric”.

As it is, the WHO is short of funds. Many member-countries, including the U.S., have not been paying their annual contributions regularly or in full. The U.S. is the biggest donor though it only pays for specific programmes. Trump has now announced the freezing of nearly $500 million in the midst of a pandemic. The WHO’s annual budget is only $2.5 billion, which is the average budget of a large U.S. hospital. The WHO has been tasked with playing the key role in coordinating an international response to the pandemic with such a paltry budget and it is getting brickbats from Washington for all its efforts.

Trump’s allies in the Senate and the U.S. Congress have not ceased their attacks on the WHO and its Director-General, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. They have accused him of acting as a tool of the Chinese Communist Party because of his praise for the Chinese government’s “commitment to transparency” and the “extraordinary measures” it had taken Wuhan. Trump, while announcing his decision to suspend U.S. contributions, accused the WHO of promoting China’s “misinformation” about the virus.

Ghebreyesus, to his credit, has from the third week of January been holding press briefings almost on a daily basis, repeatedly warning the international community that the virus was spreading rapidly. “We have a window of opportunity to stop this virus. But that window is rapidly closing,” he had warned in his first briefing on January 21. He has since been emphasising on this point ceaselessly but evidently to little avail as the coronavirus spread inexorably while governments all over the world were caught napping. All the continents except the Antarctic are affected now.

Only Trump’s loyal but shrinking base supported the latest move to deflect the blame from the administration. No other world leader followed in Trump’s footsteps though the Prime Minister of Australia, Scott Morrison, and the Japanese Foreign Minister, Aso Taro, supported Trump's accusation that the organisation was too close to Beijing. The Indian government has expressed some misgivings about the functioning of the WHO. Prime Minister Narendra Modi had told G-20 leaders about the need to reorganise the WHO and provide it with more funding.

Solidarity with the WHO

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said that this was “not the time” to reduce the resources for WHO operations. “Now is the time for the international community to work together in solidarity to stop this virus and its shattering consequences.”

None of U,S.’ European allies have supported Trump’s stance on the WHO. They have, in fact, called for the strengthening of the organisation. The European Union (E.U.) foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, “deeply regretted” the Trump administration’s move, saying that the world needed the U.N. health agency “more than ever” at this juncture to combat the pandemic.

A spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry urged the U.S. government to fulfill its commitment to the WHO at this critical time. “The decision by the U.S. will weaken the WHO’s ability to handle the pandemic, especially the nation’s whose capabilities are not well developed,” the Chinese official said. China has already given the WHO $20 million for the express purpose of combating the coronavirus.

The African Union (A.U.) Chairman, Moussa Faki Mohammat, said in a statement that the U.S. move “was regrettable”. Many Africans think that there is a tinge of racism involved in Trump’s targeting of the WHO and its chief, who is an Ethiopian national. Trump had some time back classified many African nations as “shithole countries”.

The American Medical Association president, Dr Patrice Harris, urged the U.S. President to reconsider his decision. She called it “a dangerous step in the wrong direction that will not make defeating COVID-19 easier”. The philanthropist Melinda Gates tweeted that halting funding for the WHO is “as dangerous as it sounds”. She said that the WHO’s work “is slowing the spread of the COVID-19 and if that work is stopped, no other organisation can replace them”. The former U.S. President, Jimmy Carter, said that he was distressed by Trump’s decision, saying that the WHO was “the only international organisation capable of leading the efforts to control the virus”.

The WHO chief said that the allegations that he favoured China were untrue and that there was no need to use the pandemic to score political points. “We don’t do politics at the WHO,” he said. “We care for the poor. We care for those who are vulnerable.” He reminded the critics of the WHO that the organisation was not only fighting the coronavirus pandemic but was also “working to address polio, measles, malaria, Ebola, HIV, tuberculosis, malnutrition, cancer, diabetes, mental health and many other diseases and conditions”.

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