By: William Jones Source:Global Times Published: 2020-03-03
The latest figures on the spread of the coronavirus in China clearly indicate the country is starting to gain control over the outbreak, even as cases continue to rise worldwide, including in the US. Despite the extensive ban US President Trump has imposed on people travelling from China, the first death in the US was reported on February 29th. There are also several cases that were not connected to travelers from China or their contacts, which begs the question of whether the Wuhan market is the original source of the virus.
The increase in cases hit the Trump administration somewhat by surprise and came as the President was returning from his state visit to India. Immediately on his return, he held a rare press conference in the White House press briefing room to assure the general public that the situation was under control and that there was no cause for panic. There was also concern at the White House that some of the CDC officials, who were warning of a serious epidemic in the US, had caused nervousness in the general public.
Two days later, Trump held another press conference with Vice President Mike Pence and chief medical consultants including the secretary of Health and Human Services, Alex Azar, who had been heading the coronavirus efforts. At the press conference, Trump announced that Pence would now be leading the coronavirus team. Apparently unhappy with what he considered pessimistic statements from Azar and other medical professionals, Trump decided that messaging on the coronavirus would now go through Pence.
Neoconservative China-bashers have been taken aback by the spread of coronavirus in the US. They had been playing up the "China virus" and criticizing the Chinese governance system as being responsible for the outbreak. Now that China has seen a dramatic decline in the number of new cases, with due thanks to its governance system, it remains to be seen if the US system will be as effective.
Healthcare in the US has taken several hits over the past few decades, with the closure of many rural hospitals. Much of the research that had been done during the SARS epidemic in 2003 was never followed up as SARS simply disappeared. And US research capabilities have also taken a hit, with some of the most valued medical researchers in the US falling victim to the "China witch hunt" in US educational and research institutions. Money devoted to education and research and development in non-defense related areas has also been in decline over several decades.
In the same way that the coronavirus outbreak was a test of the effectiveness of the Chinese Government, so also will the coronavirus be a test of the US system of governance. And problems have already emerged. The initial batch of 200 virus test kits that the CDC had sent to labs were defective. The CDC had also restricted the target groups for testing to those who had recently traveled to China or their contacts. As a result, some people in California and Washington state who had some symptoms, didn't meet the CDC criteria for testing and weren't tested, and one of them has died.
The WHO had offered test kits, but the CDC wouldn't allow it, saying it would soon have their own test kits. As of March 1, only 500 people had been tested compared to over 10,000 in Great Britain and over 60,000 in South Korea. Dr. Scott Gottlieb, the director of the Food and Drug Administration predicted on February 27 that by the end of the first week in March, they would be able to test over 10,000 people per day.
In this matter, the US relationship with China could become critically important. The knowledge China has gained from the outbreak is important to the other countries now experiencing the spread of the virus, including the US. China's success in dealing with the virus, which President Trump has repeatedly applauded, can serve as a model for confronting the disease in the US.
And to the utter chagrin of US China hawks, President Trump would like to increase cooperation with China. Speaking at the end of his press conference on February 29, he said "Our relationship with China is very good. Maybe it's closer because of what's happened here. You know, in a certain way, this can bring the world closer." These words are no doubt bitter medicine for irate China hawks, but music to the ears of those who wish to regain lost ground in bringing the two nations closer together.
The author is a non-resident fellow of the Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies.