Max Blumenthal is the editor of TheGrayzone.com and the author of several books including The Management of Savagery (Verso, 2019).
March 19, 2020, was a milestone for the People’s Republic of China. After enduring over two months of an epidemic of novel coronavirus, China reported that it experienced its first day without a new case of locally transmitted infection. After placing 46 million residents in Wuhan and 15 other cities under quarantine, mobilizing thousands of medical professionals to the front lines, building new hospitals practically overnight, and implementing cautionary measures such as forcing banks to disinfect cash, the country turned a corner in what its president, Xi Jinping, called “the People’s War.”
Throughout the crisis, leaders of the World Health Organization (WHO) heaped praise on the Chinese government. “Its actions actually helped prevent the spread of coronavirus to other countries,” said WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. Tedros, as he is known, added that he was “very impressed and encouraged by the president [Xi’s] detailed knowledge of the outbreak.”
Tedros’s assistant, Dr. Bruce Aylward, who also visited China, was astounded by what he observed: “What I saw was a tremendous sense of responsibility, and of duty, to protect their families, their communities, and even the world, from this disease,” Aylward marveled in a televised interview. “I left with such a deep sense of admiration for the people of Wuhan and for Chinese society in general.”
During the early days of the crisis around Wuhan, Chinese authorities took some ham-fisted measures to suppress public discussion of the outbreak. Perhaps Beijing was in denial about the gravity of the epidemic, or terrified of its societal ramifications. It was not long, however, before the Chinese government made the genome of the virus public, shared detailed information about the virus with the international community, and provided intelligence to the WHO, which relayed it to the U.S. Center for Disease Control (CDC). In fact, Health and Human Services Director Alex Azar recently revealed that the CDC first learned about coronavirus from Chinese colleagues on January 3. Tragically, while Beijing was buying valuable time for the West to prepare for the lethal pandemic, and losing the lives of medical personnel in the process, Washington chose conflict over cooperation.
Almost as soon as news of the viral outbreak reached the West, mainstream pundits turned up their noses and sneered at China’s aggressive response. A now-discredited January 24 op-ed published in Slate and authored in conjunction with the Democratic Party-affiliated New America Foundation proclaimed, “Many of China’s actions to date are overly aggressive and ineffective in quelling the outbreak.” The Los Angeles Times reinforced the condescending line, mocking President Xi’s efforts to rally Chinese citizens as “shoddy propaganda.” At around the same time, the cover of the neoliberal Economist magazine depicted China as a global disease infecting the planet—an authoritarian plague that threatened the free world more than any pandemic.
For his part, Trump has referred to the sickness as the “China virus,” deploying xenophobic bile to deflect blame for weeks of inaction. (“We have it totally under control,” the president insisted on January 22, trying in vain to calm markets. A month later, Trump claimed without evidence, “The people that have [coronavirus] are getting better.”) By March 14, as coronavirus exploded throughout New York City and Seattle, Joseph Biden took to the stage of a Democratic presidential debate and painted the sickness as a foreign weapon of mass destruction. “This is like we are being attacked from abroad!” he bellowed. CNN debate moderator Dana Bash proceeded to push the candidates to propose “consequences” China should face for the coronavirus–not lessons the U.S. could learn from China’s successful fight against it.
In reflexive and mostly bipartisan fashion, the U.S. political class has exploited a pandemic to ratchet up hostility against China. While the rising power is a necessary partner against a gathering storm of disease and societal unraveling, too many in Washington are unable to see Beijing as anything other than the greatest single threat to American global hegemony.
Over the past seven decades, the U.S. has encircled China with hundreds of military bases,threading bombers, naval warships, and nuclear-tipped missiles into a geopolitical noose. President Barack Obama’s “pivot to Asia” designated a full two-thirds of U.S. naval forces to contain China, setting the stage for a new Cold War. Trump’s national defense doctrine formally enshrined the strategy by declaring “great power competition” with Beijing and Moscow as the Pentagon’s top priority. A trade war followed, with the U.S. jailing a CEO of the Chinese telecom company Huawei, banning its 5G technology, and slapping hefty tariffs on $112 billion on Chinese imports. Dubiously sourced stories of Holocaust-level human rights violations by China supplied the new Cold War with heartstring-tugging background music, drawing suggestible Western liberals into the hostile narrative.
The same U.S. leadership class that launched the first Cold War and reignited it during the Obama and Trump eras has also presided over a systematic degradation of America’s public health system. While the task of providing health care was handed over to corporations, the number of beds per 1,000 Americans declined steadily from 4.5 in 1975 to 2.5 in 2014, according to the CDC. Having left its citizens on the verge of mass suffocation by a ghastly respiratory infection, the U.S. government has little to offer them today beyond Cold War bluster and corporate bailouts.
More than any event since the 2008-09 financial crash, the coronavirus pandemic has exposed the rotten foundation of American empire—and it has only begun to exact its toll. By March 19, the day that China declared victory over coronavirus, the U.S. achieved a milestone of its own: it boasted the sharpest increase in deaths and new infections per day of any country in the world. New York City had become ground zero for the sickness, with 10,000 new cases. At one Brooklyn emergency hospital, a doctor melted down over the lack of resources. “It’s a disaster,” he fretted. “We just had a half dozen staff test positive. We have 17 ventilators left in the institution. Some staff can’t come because they’re getting wiped out.”
In hospitals across the country, emergency room doctors have been forced to fashion their own masks, or to simply wear a bandana over their faces. Doctors badly needed N95 air-filtering respirator masks to protect themselves from infection while they treated patients hacking up toxic sputum. The Trump administration has invoked the Defense Production Act, a Korean War-era provision that would enable him to compel American businesses to produce urgently needed products. Revealingly, Trump has refused to implement the act on the grounds that doing so would mimic Venezuelan-style socialism.
While doctors wait in vain for N95 masks, a bipartisan group of 130 lawmakers made their real priorities clear when they issued a call for a massive buildup of F-35 jets. “Full funding is needed for the delivery of new weapons and critical capabilities necessary to keep the F-35 ahead of our adversaries,” the lawmakers wrote in a March 19 letter to the Pentagon, demanding 98 new stealth fighters at a cost of $94 million each.
If anything has been more elusive than protective masks—and less functional than the accident-prone F-35—it is America’s coronavirus testing system. Testing kits were magically provided to entire NBA teams and A-list celebrities with symptoms, but ask any average American in need where they plan to get screened, and you’re almost certain to draw a blank. As Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, confessed in testimony to Congress,“The idea of anybody getting [tested] easily the way people in other countries are doing it, we are not set up for that. Do I think we should be? Yes. But we are not.”
Inside China, an already effective coronavirus screening regimen is likely to improve thanks to an innovative test that can be administered in airports, and that produces results in just 40 minutes. The creator of the groundbreaking test, Weihong Tan, was a professor at the University of Florida’s cancer research lab until last year, when the Department of Justice targeted him with a McCarthy-style investigation. Accused by a Cold War-crazed U.S. government of failing to disclose Chinese funding for his department, he returned to Hunan University, where he found ample government support for his lifesaving research.
With its hollowed out public health-care system overwhelmed by a pandemic in just its early phase, the U.S. has sat and watched as China embarks on the largest international humanitarian mission in modern times. European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen has effusively thanked China for donating two million surgical masks, 200,000 N95 masks, and 50,000 testing kits to hard-hit areas of Europe. After welcoming a massive delivery of Chinese aid to his country, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic angrily accused the EU of abandonment: “European solidarity does not exist. That was a fairytale. The only country that can help us in this hard situation is the People’s Republic of China. For the rest of them, thanks for nothing.”
In response to China’s humanitarian crusade, the Trump administration’s National Security Council has rolled out a coordinated propaganda offensive blaming China for “covering up” coronavirus. Ironically, the same corporate networks that have spent the past year clamoring for Trump’s impeachment have provided the White House with an eager megaphone for its anti-China crusade. A report by CNN, for instance, suggested dark motives behind China’s delivery of ventilators and masks to Europe, claiming Beijing was “possibly trying to curry favor.” On Twitter, trending hashtags like #ChinaLiedAndPeopleDied have suddenly materialized, amplifying the Trump administration’s influence operation.
While China and the tiny, U.S.-embargoed nation of Cuba send medical brigades to hard-hit regions of Europe, Washington is sending the world sanctions and shows of military force. The Trump administration has zealously weaponized coronavirus to drive its “maximum pressure” policy of regime change against Iran, where the death toll is approaching 2,000. During a March 18 press conference, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo vowed to ramp up crushing sanctions on Iran, even though (or perhaps because) the economic blockade was preventing the country from purchasing vital medicine and ventilators. In Venezuela, meanwhile, U.S. sanctions have increased the cost of a coronavirus test to three times more than in non-sanctioned countries.
Those who find Trump’s actions at home and abroad deadly and dangerous must take heart that his opponents in the Democratic Party have united behind Biden, who seems to forget where he is at times. One of the 76-year-old former vice president’s most recent public appearances saw him in a makeshift studio in his Delaware home, staring off into the distance in a stupor, seemingly frozen in confusion, until his wife shuffled him off camera. Dogged by rumors of dementia following a comically stumbling performance on the presidential trail, where his shell of a campaign has been sustained by some 60 faceless billionaires, Biden disappeared for an entire week in mid-March, as the crisis reached its apex in the U.S. He finally resurfaced on March 23 for a deeply uninspiring online livestream that pitted the stammering candidate against a barely functional teleprompter.
As the pandemic spreads across the country, college students have descended on the beaches of South Florida for the spring break beer bash that has become a rite of passage for the young and mindless. The state’s Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, a Harvard graduate who was narrowly elected after warning his African American opponent would “monkey this up,” defended his decision to keep beaches open for the annual bacchanal. “If you have a Floridian that goes and walks their dog, like a married couple on the beach,” De Santis eloquently explained, “as long as you’re not within six feet of each other, they view that as a healthy thing.”
With the shores wide open for randy fun, a widely-watched video circulated on Twitter showing a sun-burned bro gawking at a bikini-clad woman slurping a Bud Light through the rear end of a bent-over co-ed and exclaiming, “Nobody gives a fuck about coronavirus here!”
Shelter in place and grab a protective mask if you can find one. The deluge has just begun. v
Correction: An earlier version of this piece misidentified Xi Jinping as the premier of China; he is the president.