U.S. Track record

How not to prepare for a pandemic

Print edition : May 22, 2020

President Donald Trump at the Federal Emergency Management Agency headquarters in Washington on March 19. With him (from left) are Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and Vice President Mike Pence, who heads the coronovirus task force. Photo: Evan Vucci/AP

The Trump administration and the entire U.S. political class find it easier to blame China for the pandemic rather than look deep into the record and try and understand their own failures.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) declared a global pandemic on March 11, and just after that, in mid March, the United States National Security Council (NSC) sent a cable to U.S. government agencies instructing them on how they should speak about China and the novel coronavirus. One section of the cable was called “NSC Top Lines: PRC [People’s Republic of China] Propaganda and Disinformation on the Wuhan Virus Pandemic”. NSC officials wrote: “Chinese Communist Party officials in Wuhan and Beijing had a special responsibility to inform the Chinese people and the world of the threat, since they were the first to learn of it.” Instead, the U.S. government argued, the Chinese government “hid news of the virus from its own people for weeks, while suppressing information and punishing doctors and journalists who raised the alarm. The party cared more about its reputation than its own people’s suffering.” The NSC told U.S. officials to trumpet this narrative and to suggest that the U.S. must be thanked for its “extraordinary humanitarianism”. “The United States and the American people are demonstrating once again that they are the greatest humanitarians the world has ever known,” it wrote.

There were two immediate reasons to blame China for the global pandemic. First, it was a convenient way to divert attention from the fact that the U.S. government had done nothing, despite months of notice, to prepare for the arrival of the virus. Second, it was a necessary way to undermine the remarkable way China was able to tackle the epidemic, with massive infusions of personnel, equipment and relief into Wuhan and Hubei Province. U.S. President Donald Trump’s attack on China can be explained not as the rant of an unstable individual but as part and parcel of the agenda of the U.S. government to displace its own incompetence onto China and to ensure that China does not benefit from its own swift public health response.

On December 31, 2019, Dr George Gao, head of China’s Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, called the U.S. Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and informed it about the lethality of the virus; a few days later, Dr Gao spoke to Dr Robert Redfield, head of the U.S. CDC, and “burst into tears”. This was just a few days after the first cases of the mysterious pneumonia were detected in Hubei Province. It was the same day that a high-level team arrived from Beijing to investigate the as yet unknown virus and the same day that Chinese authorities informed the Beijing office of the WHO about it. The U.S. government, in other words, was personally informed about the lethal virus at the same time as the Chinese government told the WHO.

On January 2, the WHO made a public statement that it had alerted all levels of its organisation to the emergence of this virus. The next day, Dr Redfield informed the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, whose leader, Secretary Alex Azar, is a Cabinet-rank official. Trump did not pick Azar for this post for his government experience but for two other reasons: first, for his fierce loyalty to Trump, and second, his links to the pharmaceutical industry (from 2012 to 2017, Azar was the head of the U.S. division of Eli Lilly, one of the world’s largest drug companies, and he was on the board of the Biotechnology Innovation Organisation, a trade association of the drug industry).

Azar informed the NSC, which he is obliged to do. But he did not brief Trump on the actual facts. In fact, as The Wall Street Journal reported, Secretary Azar “waited for two weeks to brief the President on the potential severity, calling him to assure him the agency was ready to handle any cases in the U.S.”.

Vietnam’s reaction

Through most of January, when other countries had begun to look with concern at what was happening in China, the U.S. government did nothing.

Compare the U.S. reaction with that of Vietnam. On January 16, Vietnam’s Ministry of Health informed other government agencies and the public about the dangerous virus and urged particular steps. Five days later, on January 21, the Ministry of Health gave detailed instructions to hospitals and clinics on tackling the virus. On January 30, the Vietnamese government, led by Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, established a National Steering Committee on Epidemic Prevention; on that day, the WHO declared the outbreak a Public Health Emergency of International Concern. Two days later, on February 1, Prime Minister Nguyen declared what was effectively a national emergency.

Both Azar and Trump were remarkably callous. On January 28, Azar said that Americans would find that the virus “should not be an impact on their day-to-day life”. By then, Vietnam had already begun preparations to contain the virus, including increasing capacity in medical institutions and stepping up production of protective equipment. On the day that the WHO declared the Public Health Emergency, Trump said, with zero evidence: “We think we have it very well under control.” He did not declare a national emergency (Azar declared a public health emergency on that day, which meant merely that agencies could reallocate personnel and resources to deal with the virus).

Trump set up the first task force on January 29, by which time there were already five known cases of coronavirus in the U.S. The declaration that set up the task force maintained that “the risk of infections for Americans remains low”. The U.S.’ actions were hollow; the shells were created, such as the task force, but their actions were nil. For instance, Azar did not clear laboratories to conduct testing until February 29, an entire month afterwards; this had a catastrophic impact on the ability of local governments to do contact testing and to manage the spread of the disease.

Right through January, February and March, Trump minimised the threat. His twitter feed provides all the evidence. On March 9, Trump likened the virus to the common flu: “Think about that!” he wrote. Two days later, the WHO declared a global pandemic. On March 13, Trump declared a national emergency; this was six weeks after the WHO had declared a public emergency. Those six weeks were lost.

Attack on China

The NSC’s instruction to attack China was led from the very top. On March 10, Trump retweeted the right-wing commentator Charles Kirk, who wrote: “With China Virus spreading across the globe, the US stands a chance if we can control of our borders.” That day, Dr Redfield appeared before the U.S. Congress for a hearing. Representative Lois Frankel (Democrat from Florida) said: “It’s absolutely wrong and inappropriate to call this the Chinese coronavirus. I assume you would agree with that?” Dr Redfield answered that he agreed with her. Earlier, on February 14, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus had called for “solidarity, not stigma”. This is what Dr Redfield recognised, but it was precisely what the U.S. government denied.

On March 16, Trump wrote on Twitter: “The United States will be powerfully supporting those industries, like Airlines and others, that are particularly affected by the Chinese Virus.” This was all part of the campaign to blame China for the epidemic and to suggest that China should receive no credit for its remarkable fight to contain the outbreak. Trump’s Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, used the term “Wuhan Virus”, and the entire administration and the far-right press—as well as conservative Democrats, including Trump’s challenger Joe Biden—began to blame China for the outbreak.

Vietnam has, thus far, registered very few cases and no deaths. By March 16, when Trump was going on about the China Virus, there were 88 deaths in the U.S. due to the coronavirus. A month later, over 50,000 people in the U.S. had died from it, far more than in China. Rather than look deep into the record to see how the U.S. destroyed its own public health system, how the U.S. government disparaged a science-based approach to contain the pandemic, and how the U.S. ignored warnings from China and the WHO, the Trump administration and the entire U.S. political class find it easier to blame China.

Both Vietnam and China, meanwhile, have sent necessary equipment to the U.S. to help it break the chain of infection.

A letter from the Editor


Dear reader,

The COVID-19-induced lockdown and the absolute necessity for human beings to maintain a physical distance from one another in order to contain the pandemic has changed our lives in unimaginable ways. The print medium all over the world is no exception.

As the distribution of printed copies is unlikely to resume any time soon, Frontline will come to you only through the digital platform until the return of normality. The resources needed to keep up the good work that Frontline has been doing for the past 35 years and more are immense. It is a long journey indeed. Readers who have been part of this journey are our source of strength.

Subscribing to the online edition, I am confident, will make it mutually beneficial.

Sincerely,

R. Vijaya Sankar

Editor, Frontline

Support Quality Journalism
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor