The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Trump can’t blame China for his own coronavirus failures

Soldiers are quarantined while recovering from the 1918 flu at Camp Funston, Kan. (Us Army/Via Reuters)

This piece has been updated.

The 1918 influenza epidemic, which killed 50 million to 100 million people around the world, is now known as the “Spanish flu.” But it most likely started in Haskell County, Kan., and it was spread around the world by U.S. soldiers initially infected at Camp Funston in Kansas. It should be known as the “American flu” or “Kansas flu.”

The influenza became a global pandemic in no small part because U.S. officials failed to warn their own citizens — or the world. Many, in fact, lied to avoid undermining the war effort. As historian Joshua Zeitz noted in Politico: “The U.S. Surgeon General, Rupert Blue, assured Americans that ‘there is no cause for alarm if precautions are observed.’ … Colonel Philipp Doane, who led health and safety at the military shipyards where the disease first spread, dismissed the ‘so-called Spanish influenza’ as ‘nothing more or less than the old-fashioned grippe.’”

Full coverage of the coronavirus pandemic

So should the nations of the world have punished the United States and demanded reparations for its role in spreading one of the most destructive diseases in history? That would seem to be the logic of the China hawks who demand that China be punished because the novel coronavirus originated there.

The Post reports that “senior U.S. officials are beginning to explore proposals for punishing or demanding financial compensation from China for its handling of the coronavirus pandemic.” Some within the administration have even talked of canceling part of the U.S. debt obligation to China. Talk about a cure being worse than the disease: No step is more calculated to shake the faith of global financial markets.

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Not even President Trump is likely to go that far, but he is eager to scapegoat China for a pandemic that has infected more than 1.1 million Americans, killed more than 68,000 and left more than 30 million jobless. More tariffs are likely, because Trump still doesn’t realize the costs are paid by U.S. consumers. “[The Chinese] have a lot to answer for, they’re going to be held accountable,” White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow said on Friday.

It’s true that China initially tried to cover up the coronavirus outbreak. It didn’t lock down Wuhan until Jan. 23. One study found that if China had acted even two weeks earlier, it could have averted 86 percent of its coronavirus cases. But another study shows that if Trump had announced social distancing guidelines two weeks earlier — on March 2, rather than March 16 — he could have prevented 90 percent of U.S. coronavirus deaths.

Global Opinions writer Josh Rogin has obtained a 2018 U.S. diplomatic cable urging Washington to better support a Chinese lab researching bat coronaviruses. (Video: The Washington Post)

China did a lot wrong, but it’s not China’s fault that Trump didn’t listen to the warnings of the U.S. intelligence community starting in early January. Instead, Trump naively believed Beijing’s false assurances. He tweeted on Jan. 24: “China has been working very hard to contain the Coronavirus. The United States greatly appreciates their efforts and transparency. It will all work out well. In particular, on behalf of the American People, I want to thank President Xi!”

Now, rather than thank Chinese President Xi Jinping, Trump wants to pillory him. He claims to have secret evidence that the virus originated at a Chinese research facility in Wuhan. But Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, says he hasn’t “seen the basis for this.” Needless to say, there is even less evidence for Sen. Tom Cotton’s (R-Ark.) conspiratorial claim that “the Chinese communist leaders … made the conscious decision … to allow this virus to escape their borders.” (This is the mirror image of Chinese propaganda blaming the U.S. Army for bringing the coronavirus to Wuhan.)

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence issued an unusual public statement on Thursday, shooting down conspiracy theories that the coronavirus was “manmade or genetically modified,” while adding that officials are still investigating whether the coronavirus “was the result of an accident at a laboratory in Wuhan.” The New York Times reports that the White House is pressuring intelligence agencies to confirm this conclusion. Outside experts say this is possible but unlikely. As The Post reported last week: “Too many unexpected coincidences would have had to take place for it to have escaped from a lab.”

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Even in the unlikely event that the outbreak was the result of a lab accident, that still wouldn’t absolve Trump of bungling the United States’ response while nations much closer to China, such as Singapore, Vietnam and South Korea, have done much better. Rather than seeking to punish China for a disease that has killed at least 4,633 of its citizens and cost it billions of dollars — isn’t that punishment enough? — the United States should cooperate with Beijing in developing a vaccine and cure.

By trying to reassign seats in the White House briefing room, the Trump administration is attempting to stifle real journalism, says media critic Erik Wemple. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford / WP/The Washington Post)

The Chinese regime is no angel — it is a brutal dictatorship that censors information, jails dissidents, commits atrocities against the Uighurs and bullies its neighbors. The United States would be better advised to focus on those genuine abuses rather than playing the pandemic blame game — lest other nations start demanding reparations for the 1918 flu.

Read more:

Paul Waldman: For Trump, China is the new Mexico

Josh Rogin: Bill Gates is wrong. China’s coronavirus coverup is not a ‘distraction.’

Nikki Haley: China’s coronavirus actions are just one of many threats it poses

Mitt Romney: America is awakening to China. This is a clarion call to seize the moment.

David Ignatius: How China can end the covid-19 conspiracy theories before they get worse

Coronavirus: What you need to know

Vaccines: The CDC recommends that everyone age 5 and older get an updated covid booster shot. New federal data shows adults who received the updated shots cut their risk of being hospitalized with covid-19 by 50 percent. Here’s guidance on when you should get the omicron booster and how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections.

New covid variant: The XBB.1.5 variant is a highly transmissible descendant of omicron that is now estimated to cause about half of new infections in the country. We answered some frequently asked questions about the bivalent booster shots.

Guidance: CDC guidelines have been confusing — if you get covid, here’s how to tell when you’re no longer contagious. We’ve also created a guide to help you decide when to keep wearing face coverings.

Where do things stand? See the latest coronavirus numbers in the U.S. and across the world. In the U.S., pandemic trends have shifted and now White people are more likely to die from covid than Black people. Nearly nine out of 10 covid deaths are people over the age 65.

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