Emperor’s New Toys

By Andrej Mrevlje |
!000 bed naval hospital ship entering Manhattan port

Life has become one dimensional. I don’t mean that life before the Coronavirus was much better. Donald Trump was still the President of the U.S., and he is not all that different from a virus. But before the Covid-19 outbreak, it was Trump who was everywhere. He contaminated the media. He left us stupefied by his incomprehensible expressions, provoking constant bewilderment at his discombobulated manner of speech. He penetrated the social fabric, obliterating all other relevant news. Many of us were counting down the days until the end of the Trump epidemic, which has finally arrived now. But while the fight against the Coronavirus has overshadowed Trump’s daily performance, he has not left the stage completely. He still is in the White House, waiting for better times. There is a strong possibility that he might come back stronger than ever when this is all over. He is now competing with the Coronavirus. He cannot tolerate someone or something – in this case, the virus –occupying center stage. This is the only reason why Trump finally decided to fight the Covid-19. This is a war between a virus and another virus.  


Who was the first person to get this new Coronavirus? No one knows for sure. This is definitely a person I would love to interview in order to understand how exactly they were infected with the virus. Whoever got it first, and there are some reports claiming the first infection occurred in October and was unrelated to the Wuhan market, must have gotten it directly from an animal. In December, when the virus started to spread, Dr. Li Wenliang, who was working at the center of the outbreak in Wuhan, rang the alarm. He notified his fellow medics about the new virus, which was very similar to Sars, which had provoked a global epidemic in 2003. But local authorities rushed in and ordered him to stop spreading panic. Dr. Li obeyed so that he could go back to work. But after he returned he was contaminated by a patient he was treating. He was hospitalized, tested positive for Coronavirus, and died on February 6, 2020.

A week before he passed away, 34-year-old Li managed to post his story on Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter. In his post he warned the nation of the dangerous and unknown virus, explaining what had happened to him and what might happen to humanity. He immediately became the people’s hero.

If Dr. Li and his colleagues had been left alone or supported in their research, if they had been able to share the data at home and abroad, there might have been a chance to stop the Coronavirus at its beginning. Instead, Li and many others never managed to get the news out because local Chinese authorities always protect the federal government from the bad news they do not want to know about. In all dictatorial regimes, rigid rules are fundamental and China is the model for any authoritarian regime. As a consequence, all the internal processes in China need to go through countless layers of bureaucracy. This not only slows down the flow of information but also prevents lower-ranking officials from reporting upwards, especially when information is politically sensitive. In this case, the Coronavirus was a bombshell compared to the small-minded, federal authority fearing local officials. They obeyed the rules and kept their lips sealed. They minimized, they denied and lied while precious weeks were lost. 

On January 23, Beijing decided to take the matter into its hands. With thousands of infected people and an increased number of deaths, the central government locked down the city of Wuhan and the province of Hubei. But it was too late. The Coronavirus was already making its way around the globe.

Just as China began to enforce the lockdown, the first contaminated person landed in the U.S. On January 20, a 35-year-old man in Washington State returned home from visiting family in Wuhan. He was the first person in the US to be diagnosed with the virus, wrote the Guardian in its long report on America’s failure to deal with the epidemic:     

On the very same day, 5,000 miles away in Asia, the first confirmed case of Covid-19 was reported in South Korea. The confluence was striking, but there the similarities ended.

In the two months since that fateful day, the responses to Coronavirus displayed by the US and South Korea have been polar opposites.

One country acted swiftly and aggressively to detect and isolate the virus, and by doing so has largely contained the crisis. The other country dithered and procrastinated, became mired in chaos and confusion, was distracted by the individual whims of its leader, and is now confronted by a health emergency of daunting proportions.

Within a week of its first confirmed case, South Korea’s disease control agency had summoned 20 private companies to the medical equivalent of a war-planning summit and told them to develop a test for the virus at lightning speed. A week after that, the first diagnostic test was approved and went into battle, identifying infected individuals who could then be quarantined to halt the advance of the disease.

Some 357,896 tests later, the country has more or less won the Coronavirus war. On Friday only 91 new cases were reported in a country of more than 50 million.

The US response tells a different story. Two days after the first diagnosis in Washington state, Donald Trump went on air on CNBC and bragged: “We have it totally under control. It’s one person coming from China. It’s going to be just fine.”

But it was not fine. Not at all. While South Korea continued reporting about 1500 tests a day, the U.S. managed to test only 500 presumably contaminated people in one month. It was a total disaster. But just like China, which only tested the people in the proven contaminated area of Wuhan and Hubei (China never provided any testing data for the rest of the country), the U.S. kept contamination figures low due to the minimal number of testing. Trump and his Corona task force refused to see reality as the nation was already breathing in the danger. The President only cared about the economy and Wall Street indexes, hoping that a miracle would blow away the virus. It was not until February 29, almost six weeks after the first case of Coronavirus was confirmed in the country, that the Trump administration allowed private labs to conduct their own Covid-19 tests to speed up the process.

Today, April 3, the U.S. has 246,000 contaminated people and 6,058 deaths caused by the Coronavirus. This makes the U.S. the leading country in the number of contaminated people, a disaster that, according to Dr. Anthony Stephen Fauci, an immunologist and director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, might end up with 240,000 Americans dead. It might, says Dr.Fauci, as it all depends on the future efficiency in blocking the spread of the virus. But in the best-case scenario, America will have 100,000 dead on the altar of the Coronavirus, the bleak prognosis says. 

“The US response will be studied for generations as a textbook example of a disastrous, failed effort,” said Ron Klain, who spearheaded the fight against Ebola in 2014, in a recent Georgetown University panel. “What’s happened in Washington has been a fiasco of incredible proportions.”

“We are witnessing in the United States one of the greatest failures of basic governance and basic leadership in modern times,” said Jeremy Konyndyk in the same Guardian piece mentioned above. Konyndyk led the US government’s response to international disasters at USAid from 2013 to 2017. The Guardian article continues:

In Konyndyk’s analysis, the White House had all the information it needed at the end of January to act decisively. Instead, Trump repeatedly played down the severity of the threat, blaming China for what he called the “Chinese virus” and insisting falsely that his partial travel bans on China and Europe were all it would take to contain the crisis.

Why is this happening, or better, why was it happening, since what we are witnessing now is an explosion of Americans doing everything for themselves, filling in the holes left by Trump’s failed leadership?

Here is why according to an op-ed in the Washington Post

Trump’s toddler traits have significantly hampered America’s response to the pandemic. They aren’t new, either. In the first three years of his term, I’ve collected 1,300 instances when a Trump staffer, subordinate or ally — in other words, someone with a rooting interest in the success of Trump’s presidency — nonetheless described him the way most of us might describe a petulant 2-year-old. Trump offers the greatest example of pervasive developmental delay in American political history.  

In his column, Daniel W. Drezner has it with the President. The column has no doubt been written by an angry person realizing that the President is unqualified to lead the country and is risking people’s lives. For the last couple of days, I’ve been calling Donald Trump a bimbo. However, if you watch this video of him presenting the new Abbott’s Quick Covid Test device, you will understand what I am saying. What was the President doing during the Coronavirus task force briefing at the White House? While the offscreen voice explains the function of the new device, the President is pushing the gadget towards a more appropriate position on the table, obviously following the instruction of someone from the side of the camera. Then Trump says: 

“That’s a whole new ballgame,” meaning that the new product would be able to speed up testing, with results being ready in mere minutes. 500,000 testing devices would be sent across the country, one of his assistants said later on. But this was not the case. Only 5,500 devices were sent out, and they aren’t working well, reported Kaiser Health News, catching the President in his game.

Do you remember the huge Navy hospital ship with 1,000 patient beds on board that anchored in New York? Well, it is the President’s biggest toy so far. The reality is that as New York’s hospitals are running out of space and facilities, the huge ship docked at Manhattan Pier 90 only has 20 patients on board! 

The problem with the toddler in charge is that it always needs attention. It looks like those who have survived working with Trump have understood this fundamental rule. The champion of all the servants is Vice President Michael Pence, who performs public adoration, glorifying the wisdom of the President, similar to the performances we are used to watching in countries like North Korea and China.

That brings us back to China–while Beijing made a mistake in withholding data during the beginning of the outbreak, China, later on, applied strict and efficient measures that stopped the spreading of the virus. Could these measures work in a less authoritarian state? That is a different story. In the end, there’s no point in talking about how the pandemic could have been avoided if China had acted differently. It’s too late and we have all been left to deal with the virus. And to be honest, one can see Trump’s little hands meddling even before the beginning of the pandemic.

According to Peter Beinart report,


When SARS hit southern China in late 2002, the Bush administration played a crucial role in Beijing’s response. Deborah Seligsohn, a Villanova University political scientist who worked on science and health issues at the U.S. embassy in Beijing from 2003 to 2007, told me that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta sent 40 experts—under the auspices of the World Health Organization—to assist China in battling SARS. “They provided the majority of the international advice in combatting the disease,” Seligsohn said. The Americans helped their Chinese colleagues “create records, do contact tracing, do proper isolation—all the stuff you needed to do.” The effort, she said, “turned out to be strikingly successful.” SARS was largely contained in Asia. Only 27 Americans were infected; none died.

This close and successful cooperation between the countries continued through Barack Obama’s presidency when the United States and China were expanding this public health cooperation to the rest of the world and during Obama’s final trip to China in 2016 when the two governments agreed to jointly finance a headquarter for the African Union’s Centres for Disease Control and Prevention so that the continent could better fight infectious diseases itself.

In 2018, Trump’s administration dramatically downsized the global epidemic prevention activities Obama had launched following the Ebola crisis. This year, even as the Coronavirus outbreak was raging, Trump proposed cutting American funding for WHO in half.

Beinart explains:

These cuts have taken a particular toll on American initiatives in China. Since Trump took office, both the CDC and the National Institutes of Health have reduced their staff in Beijing. The National Science Foundation has shut its office in the country entirely. The sentiment inside the Trump administration, Bouey told me, is that “if you have collaborative research with Chinese scientists, you’re helping China to build their capacity, and that’s not good for the U.S., because China is a strategic competitor.”

This hard decoupling on public-health matters almost certainly undermined the U.S. government’s initial understanding of COVID-19. To be sure, Beijing responded to the outbreak with a disastrous cover-up, followed by a harsh quarantine. It repeatedly and inexcusably delayed allowing a WHO delegation into Wuhan. Nonetheless, academics who study U.S.-Chinese cooperation on public health told me that had experts from the CDC and the National Institutes of Health maintained close contact with their Chinese counterparts, those informal channels would have given the United States much better information in the virus’s early days.  

Would American experts on the ground be useful in preventing the epidemic in China and around the world? They would, no doubt, have better access to the data and a quicker understanding of the situation. Right now, the Chinese are still hesitant to hand over the complete data. There is no doubt that better cooperation would be fundamental in resolving and stopping a global pandemic. If only the American administration would allow it. Beinart is convinced that Chinese doctors and virologists should be invited to the U.S. and work together with Americans and scientists from other countries, advising and transmitting their experience to the most impacted country right now, the U.S. Perhaps this would also help stop China’s current propaganda war that is trying to cash in what seems to be its unique supposed success in stopping the spread of the Coronavirus on its territory. 

☆ Support this work via Venmo

Yonder is a weekly newsletter from Andrej Mrevlje that connects global events in the news, delivered every week. Learn more »