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Blaming China and international agencies helps Trump obscure the evidence of his administration’s early failures to prepare for the virus’s spread through the United States — preparations that could have saved lives.
For hawks in Congress, the pandemic has provided epochal proof of China’s perfidy and alleged dishonesty. Bipartisan anti-China bills are circulating, including one condemning Chinese censorship and blaming Beijing for the spread of the virus and another that demands China shut down its wet markets (where the disease is thought to have emerged from animal-to-human transmission). The most vociferous anti-Beijing voices are pressing for measures to decouple the two nations’ economies and sharpen the lines of geopolitical confrontation. Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) declared over the weekend that it’s time “to quarantine China from the civilized world.”
Chinese officials and the country’s state-controlled media launched a counteroffensive, aggressively pushing back against foreign criticism while proliferating conspiracy theories that alleged a U.S. origin to the virus. At the same time, Chinese authorities see the pandemic as a vehicle with which to exercise their fledgling soft power, offering its experience in curtailing the spread of the virus as a model for others and casting itself as a benign global actor eager to come to the rest of the world’s rescue.
But it’s not just the Americans who have their doubts about Beijing’s approach. “It is obvious that such narratives are being worked on,” said German foreign minister Heiko Maas in an interview with Der Spiegel last week. “But I can only warn against anyone falling for it."
Throughout the world, various governments and politicians have directly challenged China or are now more wary of engagement with its regime.
The pandemic has prompted Britain’s two main spy agencies to reportedly warn the government about Beijing’s assertive behavior and call for tighter control of Britain’s digital communications and artificial intelligence industries.
As part of its coronavirus stimulus, the Japanese government allocated at least $2 billion to encourage its companies to shift production supply chains out of China. Meanwhile, both Taiwan and Vietnam have undercut Beijing’s coronavirus diplomacy, dispatching their own shipments of medical aid to beleaguered countries in the West.
In some places, nationalist politicos are echoing American grievances. Some officials in India’s ruling BJP party — and their legion of online supporters — have embraced the stigmatizing rhetoric of the “Chinese” or “Wuhan” virus popular in America’s right-wing media sphere.
As part of his own feuds with rival factions in Rome, Matteo Salvini, the far-right Italian leader, scoffed at Chinese offers of assistance and accused Chinese authorities of engineering new viruses in their laboratories to spring on the world, a claim that has no evidence. “If the Chinese government knew [about the virus] and didn’t tell it publicly, it committed a crime against humanity,” Salvini said during a debate last month.
Allies of far-right Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro — another leader accused of bungling his country’s response to the pandemic — have sought to turn media attention east. “It’s China’s fault,” Eduardo Bolsonaro, one of the president’s sons, tweeted last month, while retweeting a message that said: “The blame for the global coronavirus pandemic has a name and surname: the Chinese Communist Party.”
The tweet drew a tough response from the Chinese Embassy in Brasilia, which demanded an apology for the “evil insult” and suggested the president’s son had contracted a “mental virus.” But there was more to come.
Last week, Brazil’s education minister Abraham Weintraub, who, unlike some other cabinet-level officials, remains staunchly loyal to the president, warned of Beijing manipulating the crisis to its advantage. “Geopolitically, who will come out stronger from this global crisis?” he wrote in a tweet that was later deleted, which in its original Portuguese replaced the “r” in “Brazil” with an “l” — an apparent mockery of a Chinese accent. “Who in Brazil is allied with this infallible plan for world domination?”
Chinese officials once more protested, aggrieved by Weintraub’s perceived racism. But it is actions in China that have governments in Africa accusing Beijing of xenophobia. Social media was agog over the weekend with footage of African expatriates living in China’s major cities — particularly Guangzhou, a southern metropolis with possibly the biggest African diaspora in Asia — sleeping on sidewalks or huddled outside the buildings from which they had been arbitrarily evicted by authorities.
An intensifying nationalist climate within China has also led to reports of foreigners, especially Africans, being refused entry at bars and restaurants or forcibly quarantined in their apartments, even if they haven’t traveled anywhere where they would have contracted the virus.
“The Chinese authorities’ actions triggered protests from African governments — an embarrassment for Beijing as it seeks to woo African states with promises of loans and investment — and prompted U.S. diplomats over the weekend to warn African Americans to avoid the Guangzhou area,” noted my colleague Anna Fifield.
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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