A message to Trump and Xi on their Coronavirus squabble
As the world continues to grapple with what feels like a surreal, unprecedented crisis, a spat between two of the world’s most powerful men leading two of the largest economies rages on. Or maybe that’s wrongly worded, for the conflict isn’t — for now, at least — a strictly personal one. Long before Trumps’ trade war with China, analysts warned of brewing friction between a fading American superpower holding onto its influence, and a rising, ambitious China willing to step into the vacuum. And that’s perhaps the central geopolitical reality we’ll be facing for the next — who knows — 50 years. But now is not the time for blame games, political chess pumping and propaganda. When lives, futures and the global economy are at stake, now is a time to work in unison.
In asking “what’s wrong” one could as easily point to China’s initial cover-ups as to Trump’s unseriousness in handling the ensuing crisis.
Let’s tackle the familiar source of unreason first.
As we continue growing accustomed to the ever-present term “Coronavirus” — perhaps to the point of tiredness — the US President comes up with this: “China Virus” or the “Chinese virus”. Suffice to say that this isn’t a one-off but a routine unfolding in daily press releases and statements. Let’s pause for a moment… Even if that was acceptable, if unabashed xenophobia were the norm from a sitting U.S President, how exactly does it help the cause of fighting the pandemic? It’s not like the virus will suddenly spring up and say “That’s right, I’m Chinese, you’ve unmasked me” and disappear.
Maybe the goal is to divert media attention away from a dismissive, poor domestic response to the pandemic. Or the lack of medical infrastructure. Or both.
Enter Trump supporters:
“How come no one complained about the term Spanish flu”
Good point. Only the Spanish flu didn’t get its name because it originated in Spain. Instead, during World War I, Spain took the lead as one of few nations frankly reporting on and battling the sickness, hence the perception that the disease was concentrated there. But what of its actual place of origin?
Someone should explain to the Toddler in Chief that giving viruses nationalities, while attributing their undesirable qualities to a place or commuity is both wrong and strongly discouraged by health experts, one of whom says the following about the potential stigma attached to the term:
“this leads to a domino effect of both economic ostracization as well as social ostracization, that leads to people not going to Chinese business establishments because they’re afraid that they have the virus, or it — on the other extreme, it leads to hate crimes,”
Someone tell him that Asian Americans, already at risk of xenophoebic attacks, become more vulnerable through his statements.
For all the talk of ‘normalizing Trump’, how bizarre it still feels to have him at the helm of global leadership during such a crisis.
On the Chinese side, amid a wave of propaganda and misinformation, another conspiracy theory : The United States army planted a biological weapon, the Coronavirus, in Wuhan sometime last year. Those aren’t just rumours circulating in the far corners of the Chinese internet, but statements appearing on Twitter feeds of government officials, despite the platform being banned in the country. Twitter has now become an important space where Chinese diplomats defend the country from international criticism, often spreading really dubious information in the process, such as:
Lijian Zhao, foreign ministry spokesperson retweeting a story on March 13th falsely claiming that the virus originated in the United States.
Meanwhile, let’s remind ourselves of the WHO’s conclusion: Coronavirus originated in the Chinese province of Huabei.
Fake news statements like the above have even prompted Republican lawmakers to call for the banning of the Chinese Communist Party from Twitter. “The Chinese Communist Party is waging a massive propaganda campaign to rewrite the history of COVID-19 and whitewash the Party’s lies to the Chinese people and the world,” — they wrote. Given China’s initial crackdowns on whisteblowers, its cover-up attempts and late reaction to the crisis (a lockdown in Wuhan was only intrduced seven weeks after the virus first appeared), it’s hard not to react to its latest misinformation campaign with a : “Wow, you’ve got some nerve, son” type comment.
Nevertheless, while the issue of responsibility for the outbreak must undoutedly be dealt with to avoid similar disasters in the future, the entirety of focus at the moment should be on mobilizing transnational resources in the fight to stop the pandemic. The fact we can’t even expect that from the world’s two largest economies — busy attacking one another — is worrisome.
Meanwhile, precisely at a time when the public needs transparent, reliable information to alleviate mass anxiety, both countries have reciprocated the ‘favour’ of expelling each other’s journalists. Whereas China showed the door to New York Times, Wall St. Journal and Washington Post journalists on March 17th, the US drastically reduced the number of Chinese correspondents earlier this month.
This isn’t leadership.
And while the geopolitical and cultural squabble between the two superpowers continues, one is forced to ask: Can it really, really not wait?