Donald Trump flipflops through the pandemic

George Koo

The latest news on President Donald Trump, America’s flipflop-in-chief, is that he had a good conversation with Chinese President Xi Jinping. They agreed to battle Covid-19 together and Trump swore off referring to the “Chinese virus” from then on.

Of course, Trump has had a history of alternately praising and blasting China for the way it has dealt with the virus. Thus it remains to be seen as to how long his flip will last before he flops again. Trump’s liar-in-chief and top diplomat, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, has not yet pulled up his reins but continues to attack China and insist that Beijing has covered up the reality of the coronavirus crisis. He has singlehandedly blocked any attempt at forming international solidarity to fight the contagion by insisting on naming the “Wuhan virus” as the cause of the pandemic.

Pompeo has also been the point man for the Trump administration on driving the assertion that the US has been victimized by China’s coverup of the outbreak. Whether China actually covered up anything has become an increasingly harsh bone of contention between China and the US.

As I reported last week, Nature published a timeline of events related to the outbreak in the Chinese city of Wuhan and left no gaps that could have been the source of a communication blackout. There was perhaps a week to 10 days in early December when local officials wrestled to understand the sort of contagion they were facing and did not immediately file a report to Beijing.

No room for coverup: Had health officials in Wuhan known then what they learned later, the short interval of silence could have made a difference, but that pales in comparison with the months that followed. The entire world came to know about the looming pandemic, yet the Trump team sat on their hands and just worked on an orchestrated blame game.

This week, Asia-Review posted an even more detailed timeline. It said that on December 27, 2019, Dr Zhang Jixian, an ICU (intensive-care unit) doctor at Hubei Hospital of Integrated Traditional Chinese and Western Medicine, filed a report to the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission describing patients suffering from pneumonia of an unknown cause.

Three more patients entered the hospital the next day showing similar symptoms, and that set in motion the events reported in Nature and Asia-Review. Asia Review concluded: “China’s response to the outbreak of Covid-19 has been exceedingly transparent, swift, effective and life-saving. “However, the narrative has been hijacked by a few Western media outlets to propagate a coverup using nitpicked events that were twisted to fit their narrative.”

China set about doing the genetic sequencing of the novel coronavirus on January 9 and shared its fi-nding of the genetic sequ-ence with an international database on January 11. H-ardly the action of a coverup. The New York Times et al seem to base their accusations of China’s lack of transparency on the first half of December when nothing was said, but at that time the medical workers in Wuhan did not know what they had on their hands.

Then the West lionized Dr Li Wenliang as the heroic whistleblower unfairly suppressed by the Chinese authorities. What actually happened was that the trained ophthalmologist thought he had observed cases of SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) and shared his concern with his chat group. Wuhan police called him in on December 31 and gave him a cautionary reprimand, and Dr Li went back to work the same day. The Wuhan authorities subsequently and posthumously apologized to Li’s family.

Distraction from own incompetence: A companion posting by Asia-Review appears to have hit the nail of this controversy on its head. The headline says it all, “How the US used ‘Chinese virus’ as a distraction from their own incompetence.”

Consistency has never been a virtue with Trump but his views on how he is controlling Covid-19 are surprisingly unwavering. On January 22, he said, “We have it totally under control.” A month later on February 25, Trump said, “I think that’s a problem that’s going to go away.… In fact, we’re very close to a vaccine.” On March 8, “We have a perfectly coordinated and fine-tuned plan at the White House for our attack on Coronavirus.”

But despite Trump’s optimism, cases of infection in the US suddenly surged to the top of the world, exceeding even Italy and China. As the situation grew dire, it became clear that his fine-tuned plan did not include having stockpiles of ventilators or masks and personal protective equipment. He has endangered America’s health and safety.

On the one hand, Trump continues to disparage and question the needs of the state governors. Since he can’t meet their needs, that’s all he can do. On the other hand, he sees that China has become a generous and active provider of masks, ventilators, test kits, protective suits and other medical equipment to many countries in need.

Trump is no dummy. He sees that making nice with China is definitely in his interest. Now. Just last week, Trump finally used the Defense Production Act to compel General Motors to make ventilators. He could have done so many weeks earlier but apparently had hoped to coax GM without invoking the act. To invoke the act was to admit that the epidemic was slipping out of his control, a major flipflop of embarrassing proportions.

Peter Navarro to the rescue: On Friday, Trump announced the appointment of Peter Navarro, heretofore his disastrous China trade adviser, as the national Defense Production Act policy coordinator. Trump didn’t say much about Navarro’s duties but presumably getting GM to deliver ventilators in quantity and in a timely manner will be part of his mandate.

Navarro is known for his strong anti-China feelings and played a significant role in erecting the tariff barriers between the two countries. He is not known for success either as a politician or for management experience in the private sector. He is merely one of many Trump appointees without requisite qualifications.

This appears to be Navarro’s windfall dream job. He loves national TV exposure, any time he can get it. A day before his appointment, CNN had him on to explain the shortfall in ventilators. He started by praising Trump’s leadership to high heaven. Then he worked hard to cast blame on China. Finally, the exasperated CNN anchor cut him off by saying, “Peter, you are not answering the questions and wasting time.”

Despite the rude rebuff Navarro did not act offended but pleaded that he be given the time to talk and explain. His last-gasp remark before fading from the screen was that he would be pleased to come back any time to talk to CNN. When governors of New York, California, Texas and other states begin screaming for ventilators not delivered, Peter will get a lot of airtime to squirm under the national limelight.

Trump is either unable or unwilling to face the explosion of the epidemic to come. He wants the country to go back to work, fill the subways, trains and buses, reopen the restaurants and forget about “social distancing” – and let’s not forget, regular church services by Easter. He thinks he is exempt from the laws of nature.

He will regret his decision to put the economy ahead of bringing the disease under control. He may understand the leverage of real-estate financing and the enhanced return by avoiding paying taxes, but he won’t have any place to turn when the exponential growth of infections overwhelms the hospitals.

When the number of the seriously ill exceeds the number of ventilators and beds in a hospital, the doctors will be forced to decide who gets to live and who will die. The American public will demand answers and Trump will be ready: He’s “brilliant” and “capable” and it’s not his fault.

Not enough ventilators? Navarro will be the first to walk the plank. National public health in shambles? Vice-President Mike Pence must have screwed up. International prestige at a new low? Need to inject new blood as the secretary of state. The pandemic will test Trump’s skill in spreading the blame. He is really good at it. Even his predecessor Barack Obama gets his share for not anticipating the coronavirus during his time in office. If Trump can sell that to the American voters, he will get four more years in the White House.