Political Realities of the Pandemic, Part 1

When China announced to the world about the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak in Wuhan, it was just a blip in the radar amidst the holiday season. As a matter of fact, being the Chinese New Year many travelers from Wuhan made their vacation destinations worldwide, albeit with the virus packing along its bags too. Eventually, when China began implementing draconian measures in late January, the world began to realize that something bigger was afoot, albeit with great trepidation.

From lockdowns to complete bans on travel within the city that expanded later to other major cities in the province, the government also built three quarantine hospitals in Wuhan to further contain the outbreak. These measures proved effective in curtailing the number of cases and deaths as the Chinese numbers started to taper off in late February. It was only then when the number of cases started rising elsewhere that the rest of the world realized that the blip in December was actually like an asteroid that hit the planet except it was invisible.

In Italy, total lockdown was not ordered until March 9 when their total cases was nearing 10,000. This was followed March 14 by Spain. The United States experienced its first cases in Washington State where a State of Emergency was ordered by the governor on February 29 but lockdowns and other restrictions did not start until March 15. New York and California followed three days later. New York declared a State of Emergency in late January when Wuhan started their lockdowns. The other states took time to finally order their respective “stay home” orders.

While California and New York took the lead responding to the pandemic in the absence of a national policy, President Donald Trump erroneously insisted it was only a regular flu and there was no need to panic much less declare a national lockdown. It wasn’t until March 23rd that President Trump invoked the Stafford Act, activating and deploying the National Guard to California, Washington State, and New York; and deploying the hospital ship USNS Comfort (New York) and the Mercy (Los Angeles). By this time, the death in the U.S. was already at 550 with nearly 44,000 positive cases.

In late March, Trump finally invoked the Defense Procurement Act that gave him the power to mandate to General Motors to start making ventilators, and 3M to mass produce N95 masks. By early April, these companies agreed to abide by the mandate after they were released by the US Government from liability for their products. The government assumed their risks.

As we speak (April 8), the US is poised to lead the number of deaths at 14,000 plus deaths (out of 87,000 plus deaths worldwide with Italy at over 17,000) and over 410,000 cases of the 1.5 million cases worldwide. With US daily deaths now over 1,300, the accelerating pace points to a modeled 60,000 deaths and could be more as other states are becoming hotspots.

President Trump tried to downplay the severity of the American casualty by giving false hopes like possibly opening commerce by Easter Sunday. Now he’s frantically trying to sell the idea of an anti-malaria drug as a possible savior. Sensing that the virus has not been following his script, Trump along with his acolytes have now increased the decibel of demonizing China and the World Health Organization (WHO) claiming among other things, that China unleashed (with premeditation) this ‘bio-engineered” virus upon mankind with the world health body in cahoots. Stated differently, they seem to be saying now, “don’t blame our incompetence because of China’s lack of transparency and WHO’s slow response to the pandemic.” But their messaging is now off-timing with Trump and I’ll explain later.

Being a presidential year, some Republicans wants to delink China from the US and are even suggesting conspiracy theories of the COVID-19 being a biological weapon unleashed by China for nefarious gain such as world domination and trying to bring the US to its knees economically. Trump’s prospects for getting reelected in November is getting slimmer by the day. Despite recorded TV pronouncements, Trump is now denying that he bungled the job, that he didn’t have advance knowledge of the pandemic despite to the contrary that his intelligence agencies have warned him as early as November when China has not figured out yet the enormity of what they were facing, the cataclysmic possibility of a pandemic evolving out of it. His own trade special assistant Peter Navarro (interesting character but the devil is in the details later) sent him a memo in late January about great loss of American lives to could reach millions.

Now, the global situation has become chaotic with the US trying to prevent previous American medical products (masks, gloves, other protective clothing and emergency equipment) from shipping out even to known allies like Canada, Germany, and others. These allies are now turning to China for help and Chinese companies are cashing in despite reports of inferior products or faulty test kits. The Chinese government and some private donations are sending critical medical supplies to the United States and Europe.

Obviously, this whole thing is still playing out and verdict will not come until later. But we already know that the cost of this pandemic will be enormous in many ways; and why the United States will be hit hard not because of China’s malevolent intent or WHO’s incompetence, but Trump’s earlier actions that complicated and delayed the country’s response. This is not to excuse the global leaders’ failure to deliver and having failed to rise to the occasion. This is a look at the US side of such failure.

When SARS hit China in the winter of 2002, then President George W. Bush keyed America’s crucial role in Beijing’s response by sending 40 experts from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Prevention in Atlanta under the auspices of WHO, to assist China in battling the SARS outbreak. By helping their colleagues do the right thing, SARS was largely contained to Asia. No American deaths and only 27 Americans were infected. That collaboration ushered in more formal cooperation between the two countries including building Chinese capacity in influenza surveillance that spanned two presidencies – George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

Because of such close cooperation sharing information and technology, more American government employees working in public health in China grew dramatically. Some CDC officials were even given offices inside their Chinese counterpart – the Chinese Centers for Disease Control (CDC) named to honor the American agency in Atlanta. They even worked jointly to develop vaccines that both countries, and the rest of the world benefitted from not only from.

Bush and Obama recognized the importance of providing global leadership especially in times of world strife or pandemics. They did that with finesse and respect for other countries.