What did the world — including Trump — know about the virus at that point? One day earlier, on Jan. 23, the WHO warned that “all countries should be prepared for containment [of the virus], including active surveillance, early detection, isolation and case management, contact tracing and prevention of onward spread.” By this point, stories about the virus were all over the news. China had announced that the virus was being transmitted between humans and had begun locking down Hubei province.
As for the U.S. government, on Jan. 18, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar had briefed Trump on the dangers of the virus. By Jan. 24, there were two confirmed cases of the disease in the United States. On Jan. 27, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a Level 3 warning to avoid nonessential travel to China.
On Jan. 29, Trump tweeted, “Just received a briefing on the Coronavirus in China from all of our GREAT agencies, who are also working closely with China.” That very day, one of Trump’s most trusted aides, Peter Navarro, wrote a memo warning about a pandemic that could kill up to half a million Americans. Navarro warned that Chinese reports indicated the virus was likely far more contagious than the flu, more like the bubonic plague or smallpox. The next day, Jan. 30, the WHO declared a global public health emergency. Hours later, Trump assured his supporters, “We’re working very strongly with China on the coronavirus. … We think it’s going to have a very good ending.”
Was Trump telling the truth about China then, or is he telling the truth now?
Let me be clear: With regard to covid-19, China engaged in a coverup and the WHO did not push back enough. Local officials in Wuhan knew about the disease early but chose to minimize fears about it and punish doctors who spoke out. Beijing for its part kept a tight lid on information, refused help from the CDC and gave the WHO limited access to Wuhan. It is highly likely that China is still giving us unreliable data about the numbers of infected and dead. China’s repressive regime always controls and manipulates information to serve its larger interests.
But none of that changes the fact that Trump was well aware of the dangers of the virus by late January at minimum, and by mid-February at the latest. He made a judgment that the virus would not be a big problem for the United States, that it would go away in April with warm weather and that taking any strong actions would spook the stock market. It is those misjudgments that have significantly worsened the covid-19 crisis in America.
Now, to deflect blame from himself, Trump has decided to bash China. This compounds one bad policy with another. Whatever China’s mistakes, missteps and deceptions, the fastest way to defeat this pandemic would be to build a broad international alliance to pool resources, share information and coordinate actions. Right now, Washington is doing the opposite, poaching equipment from other countries, restricting trade in key supplies and acting without even consulting its closest allies. The main international aspect of the Trump administration’s strategy has been its effort to blame China.
China, meanwhile, has tried to scrub its own record by floating a conspiracy theory that the U.S. military created the outbreak in Wuhan. It has also tried to burnish its image by lending its expertise to countries around the world and sending supplies to hard-hit places such as Iran, Spain, France and the United States. As deaths in Italy were reaching unprecedented highs, the U.S. Air Force carried a shipment of 500,000 test swabs from Italy to the United States, its first of many. Meanwhile, two Chinese charities sent Italy their first shipment of 500,000 donated face masks, wrapped in parcels emblazoned with the lyrics of an Italian aria.
During the Cold War, when the United States and the Soviet Union were mortal rivals, they still cooperated on a campaign to vaccinate the world and eradicate smallpox. We are in the middle of a global pandemic, and the world’s two leading powers are trading insults and one-upping each other in a childish blame game that will save not one human life anywhere.