During the pandemic, China and the U.S. are playing their cards in a game that could change the global geopolitical order. Trump’s clumsy handling of the crisis will greatly influence the election he faces in November.
Now is the time when we should be more united, and yet we are divided. It is pathetic. The Americans and the Chinese are tangled in an embarrassing spectacle around the pandemic that is striking us. Instead of working together, the two strongest health care systems appear to be confronting each other about their responsibilities, as they launch massive propaganda campaigns.
There is no denying that the virus originated in Wuhan, but calling it “the Chinese virus” – as Donald Trump does – is unfair, because a virus has no nationality, does not need a passport and does not stop at barbed wire or walls, like the one he wants to build next to the Rio Grande. His comment is racist and insulting to the people of Asian descent in the United States itself. These issues are very dangerous and should not be taken lightly, for apparently, white supremacist groups have made several attempts to blame the pandemic on the Jewish people, which is reminiscent of medieval pogroms in its absurd search for scapegoats.
This is not to say that China bears no responsibility, since the suppression, fear and lack of transparency associated with an authoritarian dictatorship made it difficult to warn about COVID-19 in its early days, as Dr. Li Wenliang, who was punished for sounding the alarm, came to learn. If earlier action had been taken, it is likely that the spread could have been prevented. And since the Communist Party, on principle, cannot err, for that would be an attack against the very essence of the regime, the blame has been shifted to local authorities, on the domestic level, and there is also a search for foreign culprits, which finds acceptance among perpetual supporters of conspiracy theories, such as the nonsense about U.S. soldiers bringing the virus to Wuhan.
A New ‘Silk Road’
Even if China’s initial responsibility goes without saying, it is no less obvious that it has fought the pandemic in an efficient way, although less effectively than Taiwan or South Korea, which are democracies. An authoritarian and centralized state can mobilize a huge amount of resources within a limited time frame because it stops at nothing, everyone is obedient, nobody complains, and so it can build a 1000-bed hospital in 10 days, which has astonished many. (The Spanish military has built one in the Fair Institution of Madrid’s convention center.)
And then China has launched a massive image campaign by sending ventilators, masks and whatever else is needed to countries whose health care systems are now overwhelmed by the pandemic, as is the case of Italy and Spain. There is already talk of a “Health Silk Road” as the new channel for Chinese propaganda.
At the same time, this is the first global crisis where there is an absence of American leadership. So far, at least. Trump has been slow to acknowledge the seriousness of a virus that is spreading like wildfire in his own country, and has expressed doubts that call his leadership skills into question in the midst of a crisis threatening to cause an unprecedented global recession. U.S. citizens are highly susceptible to it because they lack our European health coverage and our welfare states, however much they have been cut back since 2008. Americans claim to be Mars or warriors, while they say we are Venus or hedonists. And currently, being Venus has its advantages, because it provides better protection against the disease and against unemployment.
And that worries Trump, who will face an election in November. Everything changes very quickly, and even faster with this pandemic. Trump emerged stronger after impeachment, and only two months later, the Democratic Party found a leader in Joe Biden, who, despite not being very charismatic (a far cry from Barack Obama), seems capable of uniting the votes of the many who want a change.
Trump’s clumsy handling of the crisis and its future financial cost, together with the rise in unemployment, the loss of health coverage with lost jobs and the foreclosure of homes for failure to meet mortgage payments might endanger his presidency, something which seemed almost impossible a few weeks ago. That is why a certain hyperactivity in the erratic behavior of the president is to be expected, as he simultaneously denies the severity of the pandemic and signs multimillion dollar plans to help its victims.
And there is nothing better than a foreign enemy – China and the “Chinese virus,” presented as the root of all evil– to unite the nation behind him. That propaganda campaign has already started, and it will lead to further strain on Chinese-American relations, when the problem we are facing extends beyond the egos and interests of both countries, because what is at stake is our future as a species. We are all together in the fight against the pandemic, regardless of nationality, religion or social status, because we will only beat it together.
The behavior of China and the U.S. is nevertheless understandable from another point of view, which to us seems selfish, myopic and short-term: depending on how the pandemic evolves, and how the Chinese and the Americans play their cards, the prominence of one country or the other in global geopolitics may change, and both have a lot at stake there. This crisis can still have many unexpected consequences, since the future is uncertain and history is written by the victors.