For critical weeks in February and early March President Donald Trump claimed COVID-19 would magically disappear by itself or with warmer weather.
That didn’t work. So, with the death toll at more than 75,000 and rising, the president needs a new magic formula to deflect public attention from his slow and chaotic response. And to blur the blame for the tens of thousands of new deaths that will stem from reopening the country without a national testing strategy.
The miraculous formula? Blame a sneak attack by China for causing all those deaths. “This is really the worst attack we’ve ever had,” Trump said last week. “This is worse than Pearl Harbor. This is worse than the World Trade Center. It could have been stopped in China … and it wasn’t.”
And as the rhetoric soars, so does demand for financial reparations from Beijing.
Let me be clear: I believe China made serious errors in its initial handling of COVID-19 and should be pressed to come clean by the United States in concert with our allies. But the way Trump is playing his US-China blame game will hurt Americans more than it will Beijing.
First of all, Trump’s wink at debunked conspiracy theories that COVID-19 is a bioweapon concocted in a Wuhan microbiology lab is dangerous. Dr. Anthony Fauci, along with a stream of leading epidemiologists, have stressed that the virus originated in nature, not in a laboratory. (China and Russia have spread rumors that it began as a US bioweapon, but a democracy should not be playing this authoritarian game.)
As for claims that the outbreak might have stemmed from an accident at the Wuhan lab (which studied bat viruses), the administration has presented no evidence. US intelligence agencies, along with those of its closest allies, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand -- the “Five Eyes” -- reportedly think this “highly unlikely.”
Yet, if the goal is truly to force China to cough up more information about the virus’s origin, the best way would be to present its leaders with a united front of concerned nations -- led by Washington -- demanding answers.
Despite its attempts at face mask largesse, and its impressive revival from COVID-19, the Chinese regime has angered many countries with its lack of transparency. They are looking in vain for US leadership to confront Beijing.
Instead, Trump has chosen to go it alone on COVID-19, encouraging his officials and Republican legislators to ramp up financial proposals for punishing China. Some of the initial ideas are amazingly stupid.
For example, some Republican legislators are proposing laws lifting China’s sovereign immunity so Americans can sue Beijing over COVID-19 deaths, or canceling principal or interest payments on Treasury bills purchased by China.
Did no one stop to think that, if the US unilaterally rules that China is not immune to lawsuits, Beijing could do the same to us with untold consequences? Or that, by repudiating US debt held by Beijing, Washington would destroy the gold-standard reputation of US Treasury bills?
This is what happens when foreign policy is made on the fly with an eye toward elections, not results.
Indeed, Beijing’s failings expedited the tragic spread of the coronavirus, most likely because, in an authoritarian regime, Wuhan officials were reluctant to report bad news upward to their bosses in Beijing. How much the overseas spread could have been checked with a faster response is unknown. That is why the United States should be leading an international full-court press for more information.
True, Beijing has angrily rejected the idea of an international inquiry into the COVID-19 disaster -- suggesting a boycott of Australian goods when the idea was proposed by Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, and reacting aggressively against criticism from European nations.
But it is exactly this Chinese overreach -- alienating publics from France to Italy to Vietnam and Malaysia -- that opens the door to global pushback if Trump were willing to lead it. This is the moment to strengthen Western and Asian alliances to deal with China on broader issues such as the South China Sea, Taiwan and 5G.
Instead, by unilaterally ginning up anti-China hysteria in the USA, Trump encourages Beijing’s reciprocal xenophobia, without any strategy to contain it. Clearly his much touted “friendship” with Xi Jinping didn’t help him with COVID-19.
Nor will Trump’s blame game with China inoculate him from responsibility for failing to confront the virus in the crucial weeks of January through early March. There are too many tweets and speeches on the record revealing how he blew off the danger, too many reports of advisers and intel briefers struggling to get him to take the virus seriously.
If this pandemic was “Pearl Harbor,” it was the US president who failed to mobilize the nation to test, trace and isolate when it would have saved thousands of lives -- and who still refuses to do so. Irrespective of the blame Chinese leaders bear, history won’t absolve Trump of responsibility for those deaths.
Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer. – Ed.
(Tribune Content Agency)