Historically, in hyper-crises, local and global systems can change fundamentally. Before the coronavirus pandemic hit first China and then the rest of the globe, the question of whether the American imperial era might be faltering was already on the table, amid that country’s endless wars and with the world’s most capricious leader. When humanity emerges from this devastating crisis of disease, dislocation, and impoverishment, not to mention the fracturing of a global economic system created by Washington but increasingly powered by Beijing on a climate-stressed planet, the question will be: Has the Chinese dragon pushed the American eagle down to a secondary position?
To assess that question objectively in this unsettled moment, it’s necessary to examine on a day-to-day basis how the two contemporary superpowers handled the COVID-19 crisis, and ask the question: Who has proved better at combating the deadliest disease of modern times, President Donald Trump or President Xi Jinping? It’s chastening to note that whereas China under Xi has suppressed the latest coronavirus at the human cost of three lives per million population, the U.S. under Trump is still struggling to overpower it, having already sacrificed 145 of every million Americans.
In the afterglow of Trump’s December 16, 2019, touting of a partial trade deal with China (after a lengthy trade war), a Sino-American exchange took place. George Gao, director of the Chinese Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CCDC), spoke with his American counterpart, Robert Redfield, on January 3rd, alerting him to the arrival of an as-yet-unidentified, pneumonia-inducing virus in the city of Wuhan (news of which the Chinese government would for crucial days withhold domestically). Redfield then briefed Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar on that conversation.
Ever since, the trajectories of the policies followed by Beijing and Washington have diverged by 180 degrees. Mind you, the potential prize for the winner of the contest for killer of the super-virus is the World Leadership Trophy.
Attacked by a virulent virus, China fights back
China’s National Health Commission (NHC), which had dispatched a team of experts to Wuhan on December 31st, informed the World Health Organization (WHO) that cases of pneumonia of an unknown sort had been detected in that city, linked to human exposure at a 1,000-stall wholesale seafood market, selling fish and other animals, dead and alive. With that, the Chinese scientists faced two separate challenges: to isolate the pathogen causing the disease in order to set out its genome sequencing and to determine whether or not there was human-to-human transmission of the virus.
On January 3rd, the NHC centralized all testing related to the mysterious disease and, two days later, in conjunction with experts in infectious diseases caused by pathogens that jump from animals to humans, completed the sequencing of the genome of the virus. It became accessible worldwide that January 7th. And on January 10th and 11th, the WHO issued guidance notices to all its member states about collecting samples from any patients who might show symptoms of the disease, listing stringent precautions to avoid the risk of human-to-human transmission.
On January 14th, Maria Van Kerkhove, acting head of the WHO’s emerging diseases unit, offered a mixed message on the situation. She told reporters that there had, so far, been only the most limited kinds of human transmission between family members in China. Nonetheless, she added, the possibility of wider human-to-human transmission should not be regarded as “surprising” given the similarity of the new virus to the ones in the earlier SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) and MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) outbreaks. However, Reuters and China’s Xinhua News Agency also quoted her as saying that there had been only the most limited human-to-human transmission of the new coronavirus so far, mainly among small clusters of family members and that “it is very clear right now that we have no sustained human-to-human transmission.”
On January 16th, scientists at the German Center for Infection Research in Berlin developed a new laboratory test to detect the novel coronavirus. This offered the possibility of diagnosing suspected cases quickly. The WHO publicized it as a guideline for diagnostic detection. The leaders of many countries adopted it, but not President Trump who, in America First-style, demanded a test produced by U.S. scientists. Only on February 29th, however, would the Food and Drug Administration allow laboratories and hospitals to conduct their own COVID-19 tests to speed up the process. That was four weeks after the WHO had started distributing its effective test globally.
On January 19th that China’s National Health Commission confirmed human-to-human transmission of the novel coronavirus. On that day, it publicly confirmed the first cases of person-to-person transmission. Headed by a cabinet minister, the NHC classified the novel coronavirus as a category B infectious disease under the country’s 1989 Law on Prevention and Control of Infectious Diseases (revised in 2004 and 2013). This law allows the upgrading of an infectious disease to category A subject to the decision of the cabinet. Under that classification, medical institutions are authorized to treat patients in isolation in designated places and take necessary preventive measures to discover and deal with their close contacts.
On January 20th, after chairing a cabinet meeting, Premier Li Keqiang first spoke of the necessity of controlling a coronavirus epidemic, demanding that all Communist Party and government units address the situation. While endorsing Li’s call, President Xi Jinping stressed “the importance of informing the public to safeguard social stability.” As one high-level Communist Party committee typically stated in a posting on WeChat, “Whoever deliberately delays or conceals reporting for the sake of their own interests will be forever nailed to history’s pillar of shame.”
All this happened on the eve of the week-long Chinese New Year holiday, a time when hundreds of millions of people return to their homes for celebrations. On January 22nd, three days before the New Year, the authorities suspended all rail and air links out of Wuhan.
The next day, the central government imposed a complete lockdown on that bustling city of 11 million and other large urban centers in the province of Hubei. Residents were forbidden to leave their homes, while food and other supplies were to be delivered by neighborhood committees. This set a precedent for similar measures in other cities, as in the coming weeks many areas across China imposed such “closed management” situations on communities. Up to 760 million people were subjected to travel curbs of one sort or another, while the economy was reduced to 40%-50% of its normal capacity.
During a meeting with WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus in Beijing on January 29th, President Xi assured him that he had personally overseen and directed the response to the viral outbreak and the prevention and control measures that went with it. On January 30th, with the novel coronavirus having spread to 17 countries including the United States, the World Health Organization declared the outbreak a “global health emergency.” On February 11th, it labeled the disease caused by the latest coronavirus, which can culminate in death-inducing pneumonia, COVID-19.
Meanwhile, in Trumpland…
On January 29th, President Trump officially inaugurated a task force led by Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar to monitor, contain, and mitigate the spread of the coronavirus while also keeping Americans informed on the matter.
Azar and the Centers for Disease Control Prevention’s Robert Redfield had already been involved in protecting Americans from the deadly virus. On January 7th, Redfield had established the CDC’s COVID-19 Incident Management System and, on the 21st, he activated its emergency response structure. On that very day, the first lab-confirmed coronavirus case was reported in Olympia, Washington. (Earlier ones would later be detected.) The president noted the news with a tweet: “It’s one person coming in from China and we have it under control. It’s going to be just fine.”
Inside the White House, Trump’s national trade adviser, Peter Navarro addressed a warning memo to the National Security Council stating that the present “lack of protection elevates the risk of the coronavirus evolving into a full-blown pandemic, imperiling the lives of millions of Americans.” He estimated that such a pandemic could kill half-a-million people and deliver a $5.7 trillion hit to the economy.
Two days later, in response to these developments, all Trump did was ban the arrival of non-US citizens who had recently traveled to China. From then on, he repeatedly touted this as evidence that he had acted early. Azar’s plan to set up surveillance in five cities at the cost of $100 million fell through when, on February 21st, Nancy Messonnier, director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, told reporters that problems with the kits to test for COVID-19 were still unresolved.
In the absence of meaningful testing, the number of cases in the U.S. looked small. “The coronavirus is very much under control in the USA,” Trump tweeted on the 24th. “CDC & World Health [Organization] have been working hard and very smart. Stock Market starting to look very good to me!” He ignored Navarro’s memo of the previous day and its warning that “there is an increasing probability of a full-blown COVID-19 pandemic that could infect as many as 100 million Americans, with a loss of life of as many as 1-2 million souls.”
Instead, on February 25th, at a news conference in New Delhi during his trip to India, the president haughtily claimed that a vaccine for COVID-19 would soon be available. “Now they have it, they have studied it, they know very much, in fact, we’re very close to a vaccine,” he said confidently.
That same day, in a CDC briefing in Washington, Nancy Messonnier described the situation this way: “Ultimately, we expect we will see [the infected] community spread in this country… [and] disruption to everyday life may be severe. But these are things that people need to start thinking about now.” That led to a staggering 1,031 point fall in the Dow Jones Industrial Average, which infuriated Trump. He promptly urged Larry Kudlow, director of the National Economic Council, to go on television and preach confidence. Accordingly, Kudlow told CNBC, “We have contained this. I won’t say airtight, but it’s pretty close to airtight.”
On his return to Washington on February 26th, Trump replaced Azar as the head of the coronavirus task force with Vice President Mike Pence, and charged him with disseminating positive messages in order to steady a jittery stock market. The next day, the grievance-laden president complained that the media were doing all they could “to make the Caronavirus [sic] look as bad as possible, including panicking markets, if possible.”
Meanwhile, back in the middle kingdom
On February 10th, Chinese President Xi visited a hospital in Beijing where he held a video call with health workers in Wuhan. Coverage of it and his temperature being taken by a doctor filled the front page of the official newspaper, the People’s Daily. By then, Communist Party chiefs in Wuhan and Hubei province had been “replaced” because of their poor initial response to the coronavirus.
In Wuhan, an extra 60,000 hospital beds for COVID-19 patients were created within a month by converting 16 exhibition halls and sports venues into field hospitals and constructing two brand new hospitals as well. On February 23rd, Xi teleconferenced with 170,000 local officials, describing the pandemic as the hardest public-health emergency to contain since the founding of the People’s Republic. He noted that the situation remained grim and complex, while Hubei Province and significant parts of the rest of the country (as well as the economy) had been shut down.
The highest priority was given to the production of personal protective equipment. According to an official March 6th press briefing, production of protective clothing had jumped from less than 20,000 pieces daily to 500,000 pieces daily. The output of specialist N95 masks shot up eightfold to 1.6 million and ordinary masks totalled 100 million.
During a trip to Wuhan four days later, Xi praised front-line medical workers, military officers, soldiers, community workers, police officers, officials, and volunteers fighting the pandemic, as well as patients and residents in the locked-down city. The epidemic had by then caused 3,000 deaths. On March 9th, however, daily new cases in Wuhan had already dropped to 19 from thousands a day a month earlier. All the makeshift hospitals were closed. Nonetheless, Xi warned that prevention-and-control work required constant vigilance.
When 114 countries reported coronavirus cases to the World Health Organization on March 11th, it declared the COVID-19 outbreak a global pandemic.
By mid-March, the Chinese government and the Jack Ma Foundation, part of the giant corporate conglomerate Alibaba Group, had sent doctors and medical supplies to Belgium, Cambodia, France, Iran, Iraq, Italy, the Philippines, Serbia, Spain, and the United States. The foundation announced that it would ship “20,000 testing kits, 100,000 masks and 1,000 protective suits and face shields” to every country in Africa and added that Ethiopia’s Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed, would “take the lead in managing the logistics and distribution of these supplies to other African countries.”
Of the 89 countries that, by March 26th, had received emergency assistance from China to fight the pandemic, 28 were in Asia, 16 in Europe, 26 in Africa, nine in the Americas, and 10 in the South Pacific. Such medical supplies mainly included testing kits, masks, protective suits, thermometer guns, and ventilators. China also invited officials and experts from more than 100 countries to a video conference on COVID-19, while President Xi conducted 26 telephone conversations with 22 foreign leaders, including French President Emmanuel Macron, Saudi King Salman bin Abdul Aziz, Spanish King Felipe VI, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, and Donald Trump.
Trump wakes up
On March 13, President Trump declared a national emergency, pledging to dramatically speed up coronavirus testing (which he disastrously failed to do). By then, he had chalked up a remarkable series of false claims and outright lies about the fast-spreading disease. Typically, on a visit to CDC headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia, on March 6th, he had boasted of his “natural ability” to understand the subject of epidemiology.
On March 13, he falsely announced that a Google website was being developed to help people find places to get COVID-19 tests, something Google’s officials turned out to know nothing about. The next day, he lined up executives from Walmart, Target, CVS, Walgreens, LabCorp, Quest Diagnostics, and Roche Diagnostics, insisting that they would help expedite testing to stop the quick-spreading virus. In fact, little happened and the nation began to shut down. Public schools closed, sports leagues postponed or cut off their seasons, people began working from home in large numbers (as others by the millions simply lost their jobs), and supplies of hand sanitizer, disinfectant wipes, and toilet paper disappeared from store shelves. A month on, very few of the president’s promises had materialized, while the disease had spread dramatically and deaths had begun to soar.
Asked about the shortage of testing kits and sites, which has left America lagging far behind South Korea and other countries in dealing with the still-spreading virus, Trump couldn’t have been clearer. “I don’t take responsibility at all,” he said. And yet, locked into his “Make America Great Again” bubble, until March 6th he blocked an offer from the Jack Ma Foundation to send 500,000 testing kits and one million masks to the U.S. to be distributed by the CDC.
By heeding the WHO’s battle cry of “test, test, test,” South Korea had managed to avoid the kinds of lockdowns implemented by China, many Western European countries, and some American cities. In a desperate phone call to President Moon Jae-in on March 24th, Trump begged him to rush test kits to the United States. In response, Jeong Eun-kyeong, director of the South Korean equivalent of the CDC, agreed, but only at a level that would not diminish his own country’s testing capacity.
Soon after the arrival of 1,000 Chinese ventilators at John F. Kennedy International Airport on April 4th, much to the relief of a grateful Governor Andrew Cuomo, a tweet from Trump read, “USA STRONG!” His boast, however, sounded hollow, given the grim news that, between February 12th and March 11th, the Dow Jones index had dropped around 8,000 points from its historic peak, as national unemployment tripled from a low of 3.5% (with more to come).
To counter this, on April 9th, the Federal Reserve released business lending and other programs worth $2.3 trillion to steady a fast-sinking economy. It had already injected $500 billion dollars into the financial system in March, with plans for a further $1.5 trillion to come.
By March 27th, as the U.S. had gained the global status of number one in coronavirus cases, the president also signed into law the $2.2 trillion Coronavirus Preparedness and Response Supplemental Appropriations Act, passed almost unanimously by Congress, to rush federal assistance to workers and businesses. It included the payment of $1,200 to most taxpayers; enhanced unemployment benefits; a $500 billion lending program for large companies, cities, and states; and a $367 billion fund for small businesses.
Despite all this, the country’s gross domestic product is expected to fall by at least 10.8% in the second quarter of 2020. China’s GDP contraction of 6.8% in the first quarter of the year was a historic drop. However, at 5.9%, the jobless rate in urban areas in March 2020 was down by 0.3% from the previous month.
Passing on the world leadership trophy?
The question that many experts on geopolitics are now pondering is this: Have their responses to COVID-19 shifted the balance of power between China and the U.S. in a way that will matter in a post-coronavirus world? Watching the chaos of Trump’s daily press conferences and his administration’s failure to stop the virus effectively proved an alarming reminder that rational people can plan for anything — except an irrational American president. After all, under his watch 746,459 Americans had contracted COVID-19, and 39,651 had died by mid-April. The comparable figures for China were 82,747 cases and 4,632 deaths.
Nathalie Tocci, an adviser to the European Union’s foreign affairs chief, recently offered a pertinent historical parallel to consider. She cited the 1956 Suez crisis – Britain’s unsuccessful, if conspiratorial, alliance with France and Israel to militarily topple the nationalist regime of Egypt’s President Gamal Abdul Nasser. It is now considered the sunset moment for Britain’s imperial power. In the present context, she speculated that the COVID-19 pandemic may prove to be a “Suez moment” for the United States.
Ignoring the warnings of scientists and public health experts, President Trump threatens to disastrously extend his coronavirus chronology from hell into an increasingly painful future by “reopening” the country too soon. By so doing, he will only accelerate the day when the World Leadership Trophy, held by America since 1946, is handed to the People’s Republic of China.
Dilip Hiro is the author of After Empire: The Birth of a Multipolar World among many other books. His latest book is Cold War in the Islamic World: Saudi Arabia, Iran and the Struggle for Supremacy (Oxford University Press). This piece first appeared in TomDispatch and is republished with the permission of the author.