(Photo: China Daily)
Editor's Note: In an essay, a senior research fellow at China Institute of International Studies has exposed Washington's problems in dealing with the novel coronavirus pandemic, saying the blame game won't cure the US' ills. Following is the full text:
By Friday, the United States had more than 5 million confirmed COVID-19 cases and over 163,000 deaths, both highest in the world. Stunned by the surging cases, people in the US and around the world can't help but wonder what has happened to the US and why. To that question, the White House and Republicans have an answer: It is China's fault.
But the China blame game is both undesirable and deadly.
US' favorite blame game
A punching bag for political forces in the US for decades, China is an easy target to pick during a health crisis in a presidential election year. In the past decade, China-bashing has taken on new intensity, and under President Donald Trump's watch, China has been increasingly viewed as a strategic competitor. Blaming China, in fact, has become part of a well-publicized Republican campaign strategy in the election year.
Some American politicians accuse China of covering up the epidemic, not sharing sufficient information timely, and underreporting the number of cases. They claim, explicitly or implicitly, that the novel coronavirus originated in a lab in Wuhan. They would even like to make China accountable for the losses the US has suffered in the pandemic. And the US president has accused the World Health Organization of being "China-centric", even pulled the US out of the WHO.
The Chinese side has refuted all these allegations.
The first three suspected cases of pneumonia of unknown cause in China were reported by Zhang Jixian, a doctor from Hubei province, on Dec 27, 2019. Then a sizable group of professionals from local centers for disease control and prevention and hospitals, as well as from China's National Health Commission scrambled to investigate how contagious the virus is and assess its destructive potential. This level of early alertness, awareness and quick response by Chinese medical experts could be attributed, to some degree, to their experiences of the 2003 severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) outbreak and lessons learned thereafter.
Regular updates on pandemic situation
The first week after the disease was detected saw China beginning to send timely updates to the WHO, and other countries, including the US. As of Feb 3, China had given the US briefings on the epidemic and information on its prevention and control measures 30 times, almost on a daily basis. The WHO, too, has been providing frequent briefings and updates on the outbreak. According to various news sources, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has acknowledged that it first learned of a "cluster of 27 cases of pneumonia" of unexplained origin in Wuhan as early as Dec 31.
China has regularly updated the WHO, too, about the epidemic situation in the country, fulfilling its obligations of notifying the global health body under the framework of International Health Regulations. China also hosted a field visit by a WHO delegation to Wuhan on Jan 20-21, and the WHO-China Joint Mission on Coronavirus Disease 2019 on Feb 16-24－two members of the mission were from the US.
China's intensity of action and interaction including exchange of information with the WHO and its member states shows that from the very beginning, the US administration has been regularly and well informed by the Chinese side and the WHO on the epidemic situation in China and the rest of the world.
In retrospect, even China's public announcement on COVID-19 to alert the whole nation on Jan 20 left the US nearly two months to make preparations for preventing and controlling the spread of the virus. Therefore, the perceived "delay" in China's response cannot serve as an excuse for the US administration's sluggish response.
The first couple of weeks also witnessed Chinese professionals deepening their understanding of the nature, scale and infectiousness of the disease and sharing their findings with the rest of the world in real time.
They wasted no time in conducting research on the cases available. Their successive findings and achievements over time include the identification of the pneumonia to be viral and caused by the novel coronavirus, development of testing kits, and submission to the WHO the genome sequence of the novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) as well as preliminary estimates of key epidemiological parameters of COVID-19－the disease caused by SARS-CoV-2－such as the incubation period, case fatality ratio, the serial interval and the basic reproduction number (R0).
Richard Horton, editor of the prestigious medical journal Lancet, said: "Under immense pressure, as the epidemic exploded around them, they took time to write up their findings in a foreign language and seek publication in a medical journal thousands of miles away. Their rapid and rigorous work was an urgent warning to the world. We owe those scientists enormous thanks."
And Michael Head, a senior research fellow in global health at the University of Southampton, stated: "The Chinese have been leading the way in publishing open-access evidence on case management, genomics and numerous areas of public health and epidemiology, which has been vital in informing the response in more or less every country."
Firm foundation for govt decision-making
These findings laid a firm foundation for government decision-making, leading to strict anti-epidemic measures nationwide ahead of the Spring Festival holiday, which affected hundreds of millions of people in China. This drastic and unprecedented move alone served as a strong message to the world about the nature and severity of COVID-19.
In his tweet on Jan 24, Trump praised China's efforts to control the spread of the virus thus: "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." Since then and throughout late January and February, Trump repeatedly praised China's handling of the outbreak, acknowledging that China was "doing a very professional job" and was in touch with the WHO and the US CDC.
But when the numbers of infections and deaths in the US climbed to the top of the global list, the White House changed its attitude, and turned the pandemic into a battle against China, stoking nationalism by overstressing the fact that the virus was first detected and reported in China.
The US side has touted conspiracies without offering any evidence, and ignoring the counterarguments of leading scientists around the world including US scientists. It even began doubting China's data as if a much higher number of Chinese infections and deaths would have made American numbers look nicer to US voters, and US leaders less accountable for the high numbers of infections and deaths. That is the key to understanding the shift in the White House's narrative from acknowledging China's transparency and professionalism in containing the outbreak to blaming China for the US' problems.
Stringent anti-pandemic measures behind success
The fact is, China succeeded in "flattening the curve" by taking comprehensive and stringent measures, not by distorting data. The Chinese government has time and again stressed the importance of ensuring the data are accurate throughout the fight against the pandemic, and those who fail to follow the rules of reporting are disciplined.
Over 100 days, more than 3,000 press conferences were held by governments and health departments at the national, provincial and municipal levels, providing daily updates on the pandemic situation and answering related questions, and releasing information on both infections and deaths, so as to increase public awareness and assist in timely contact tracing.
With a cell phone in hand, every Chinese citizen has access to information that may alert them to risks of being physically close to infected people or suspected cases either in their neighborhoods, workplaces or in public transport vehicles. China has a policy of meticulous case and contact identification for COVID-19. In Wuhan alone, more than 1,800 epidemiologists, in a minimum of five-member teams, were tracing tens of thousands of contacts a day. Timely and accurate data on the pandemic are what they needed to make the fight successful.
Under such circumstances, any cover-up or deliberate underreporting of COVID-19 cases or the scale of the outbreak in China is beyond imagination, even punishable. No one in the world is more willing and eager than the Chinese government and people to get a clear understanding of the scale, nature and infectiousness of the virus in the country.
As for allegations that the novel coronavirus was made in the Wuhan Institute of Virology or spread through an accidental leak from the institute, the institute has unequivocally stated that the virus did not originate there. Peer-reviewed and esteemed journals such as the Lancet, Nature and Science have published articles dismissing such weird claims.
A representative voice is that of Peter Daszak, who has been working with the Wuhan institute for the past 15 years. In his interviews with CNN on April 26, and CBS' 60 Minutes on May 10, Daszak said the Wuhan P4 Laboratory didn't have the virus that led to COVID-19. In his words, "Nobody has the virus from bats that then led to COVID-19. We've not found it yet. We found close relatives, but it's not the same virus." Therefore, the virus could not have come from that lab.
As for those pursuing lawsuits against China based on their allegations that China is responsible for the global spread of the virus, there is no legal basis for any such lawsuits and no factual evidence to support their allegations against China.
White House fails to see big picture
"They've simply lost time they can't make up. You can't get back six weeks of blindness," Jeremy Konyndyk, a senior policy fellow at the Center for Global Development and a Barack Obama-era administration staffer involved in the government's response to the Ebola virus epidemic in Africa, told The Washington Post. "To the extent that there's someone to blame here, the blame is on poor, chaotic management from the White House and failure to acknowledge the big picture."
Numerous news reports of interviews with current and former US officials, internal emails, memorandums and other recently unearthed evidence from Washington indicate that the White House was being continuously warned of a coming pandemic and its possible consequences but chose to play down the seriousness of the virus. Trump even tweeted that, "We have it totally under control", and "USA in great shape!"
In addition to these missed early warnings, other major missteps and lost opportunities at the federal level also contributed to the surging cases, especially stalled testing issues. Testing is a key link in the chain of necessary measures of response. Had the US tracked the virus' earliest reach and identified hidden hot spots of community transmission, local quarantining might have been able to confine the disease, according to a report in The New York Times.
There are some root causes for the negligence and inaction, and the loopholes in dealing with the pandemic. First, the White House has engaged in a tug-of-war with scientists and experts over the anti-pandemic policy. As CNN, the NYT and other US and international media outlets have reported, the US administration is putting science aside in the battle against the virus.
Cuts in medical emergency funds fuelled US crisis
Second, the lack of attention to federal preparedness and coordination helps explain why the US administration has consistently botched its response to the pandemic. Fortune magazine has reported that over the past two years, the Trump administration has been systematically dismantling government agencies and cutting funds specifically designed to protect against pandemics such as the one raging now.
Third, the US administration is prioritizing politics over public health amid the worst public health crisis in the US in a century. Like it or not, in the election year voters will almost certainly choose sides based on how Trump and his administration have responded to the pandemic. Trump and his political strategists feel very comfortable with their familiar playbook of the 2016 campaign as he seeks a second term: blame the outsiders.
As for the Democrats, they would put all the blame on Trump, highlighting how he initially downplayed the pandemic, and underlining his subsequent follies. They would try to show voters that they can do a better job of governance.
A political battle leading to bigger and bitter polarization among Americans does not bode well for the fight against the pandemic. And blaming China won't solve the US' problems.
The US' blame game has further soured Sino-US relations and increased tensions between the two sides. As a result, the number of Americans holding a negative view about China is increasing, with Republicans being more likely than Democrats to view China unfavorably, according to a recent survey by Pew Research Center.
Serious strategic policy mistake
Besides, by making China the scapegoat for all its ills, the US will weaken its response to COVID-19 and harm cross-border cooperation in the fight against the pandemic, leading to loss of more lives. For instance, some Americans tend to view the coronavirus outbreak in China as a result of its unique political system, and China's vigorous response measures as being "draconian" and "totalitarian". The White House and many of its supporters also view China's interaction and cooperation with other countries through a prism of great power competition.
This line of ideology-driven logic has clouded some Americans' understanding and judgment of COVID-19, and their ability to act in proportion to the severity and nature of the pandemic.
When China is demonized and deemed untrustworthy, US opinion leaders tend to treat China as the "other", and believe it is politically incorrect to discuss the effectiveness of China's response to the outbreak. They may talk about how the Republic of Korea, Japan and Singapore have responded to the outbreak, without mentioning China, which has a far larger population and might offer equally, if not more, important references for the US.
Anti-China moves remind of the McCarthy era
Under such circumstances, reporting and discussing China's effectiveness in mitigating and containing COVID-19 are often viewed as parroting "Chinese propaganda", siding with China, and undercutting Trump's presidential campaign. No wonder former US ambassador to China Max Baucus said that the US administration's anti-China rhetoric reminded him of the McCarthy era.
In April, for example, the White House criticized the Voice of America, the US' official propaganda tool and foreign policy instrument, for running an Associated Press article referring to Wuhan's lockdown as a "model" for other countries battling the novel coronavirus. The White House statement asserted that in so doing, the VOA "amplified Beijing's propaganda" about COVID-19.
CNN and its journalists, who often give negative coverage to China, have recently been accused by the pro-Trump camp of "shielding China" because CNN.com ran an article indicating that the People's Liberation Army Navy has done a much better job of controlling the virus than the US Navy. On May 10, in a tweet, Trump accused CBS of "doing everything within their power" to "defend China", shortly after the network's 60 Minutes aired a story featuring virologist Daszak debunking false claims about the Wuhan lab.
The US administration and Republican strategists have determined that their best bet would be to turn the anti-virus fight into a political game, focusing on which countries and individuals can stand up to China, instead of who can better deal with the pandemic. According to news and information website Axios, a leading pro-Trump super political action committee has been testing a new ad campaign to paint Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden as being soft on China and redirecting criticism of Trump's coronavirus response.
So far, the US administration has chosen to intensify animosity with China, instead of playing a role in forging a global coalition against the coronavirus. After weeks of shifting blame to China, Trump has publicly threatened to cut off all ties with China. As Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, recently wrote, "It would be a major strategic error to make confronting China the organizing principle of US foreign policy. To do so would be to misread a world in which the most significant threats come from global problems such as disease, climate change, & terrorism."
A way out and forward
Since the COVID-19 outbreak, the Chinese government has acknowledged that prevention and control of the pandemic is a major test for China's medical system and governance capacity, which has helped it gather experiences and learn lessons. Despite the difficulties and shortcomings experienced in its initial encounter with COVID-19, China has made decisive progress in fighting the invisible enemy. Indeed, human beings make progress by learning from their mistakes. With a population of 1.4 billion, China has vowed to draw lessons from the ordeal and further improve its preparedness to deal with similar events in the future.
In the same vein, global governance has been put to test in the face of the pandemic. The coronavirus knows no border or nationality, nor does it believe in any faith. In medical terms, until a vaccine is ready, a cluster of cases in one country may pose a threat to people's health and safety in another country. And no country can weather the unprecedented pandemic crisis alone. As UN Secretary-General António Guterres put it, "This is, above all, a human crisis that calls for solidarity." So world leaders must come together and offer urgent and coordinated global response.
As the world's two largest economies, the UN Security Council permanent members and major players in many multilateral institutions, the US and China have shared interests and responsibilities in prioritizing cooperation over competition and avoiding tensions and conflicts.
Collective, coordinated response need of the hour
Just imagine how consequential for the world it would be if the US and China join hands with other countries to work out a collective and coordinated response to ensure cross-border supplies of medical products and food, and collaborate in research on treatment and vaccines, as well as provide economic recovery packages.
As former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger recently argued, today's leaders should choose a path of cooperation that will lead toward improved international resilience. History shows that the US and China, despite their persistent differences, have worked together on major global issues, such as nuclear nonproliferation, counter-terrorism, climate change, energy security, the 2008 international financial crisis, and the Ebola virus outbreak.
Containing the coronavirus pandemic should be a point of rally rather than conflict for the US and China. There are a thousand reasons for the two countries to embark on a path of cooperation, but not a single one to drive bilateral relations astray.
To begin with, the US should stop the blame game.