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Donald Trump’s trade war against China takes a coronavirus turn

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The Trump administration has expanded its trade war against China to include the COVID-19 pandemic. With more than 1 million already infected in the United States and about 60,000 dead, Trump’s assertions in February and March that the coronavirus is just “like a flu” and will disappear have now been replaced by ‘China did it,’ even talking about making China pay reparations. A part of this is Trump’s dire need to scapegoat someone, or some country, for the United States’ total incompetence in handling the COVID-19 epidemic.

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But that is not all. The anti-China campaign fits into the larger war that the United States was already waging against China. The U.S. hegemony as the sole superpower is being challengedeconomically by China with its manufacturing strength, and strategically by Russia, with its re-emergence as a global player. In the U.S. domestic politics and its presidential election cycle, Russia is rapidly being replaced by China as the new arch-villain.

As always happens, the U.S. mainstream media loyally follows suit, whether it is the fiction of Iraq’s weapons of mass destructionSyria’s use of chemical weapons, or Russia hacking the 2016 U.S. elections. The recurring theme emerging from the U.S. media, helped by suitable “leaks” from the U.S. intelligence agencies, is that China did it, or hid it, and that is why the virus got away infecting the world. Trump’s China virus narrative is also tapping into the deep reservoir of xenophobia and racism, that is why it is so potent.

Let us look at the facts as we know them. This is from scientific studies that are emerging worldwide, and not from social media, or planted stories; or the ravings of Trump on prime-time TV. The timeline of how the epidemic unfolded in Wuhan and what we know about it are given below:

  • The Nextstrain computational biology team’s collection of 4,246 genomes sampled between December 2019 and April 2020 shows that in their record, an ancestor with the first mutation would have emerged probably in mid-December 2019.
  • Zhang Jixian, director of the respiratory and critical care medicine department at Hubei Provincial Hospital of Integrated Chinese and Western Medicine, on December 27 was the first to detect SARS-CoV-2 symptoms in three patients of the same family. Alarm bells rang when the blood tests showed a viral infection but not a flu virus. This meant a possible novel virus, and was immediately communicated to Wuhan and Hubei authorities.
  • On December 30, the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission “sent out an urgent notification to medical institutions under its jurisdiction about an outbreak of pneumonia of unknown cause in the city.”
  • China’s “National Health Commission (NHC) dispatched a working group and an expert team in the wee hours of December 31 to Wuhan to guide epidemic response and conduct on-site investigations.”
  • On “the same day, the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission released its first briefing about the outbreak of pneumonia of unknown cause on its website, in which it confirmed 27 cases,” “told the public not to go to enclosed public places or gather” in numbers, and also “to wear masks when going out.”
  • On December 31, Chinese authorities alerted the World Health Organization (WHO) about a new coronavirus outbreak.
  • On January 1, they closed down the Wuhan seafood market, which had reported a number of cases. It was later found that a number of infections originated outside the market, as reported in Lancet, so this was not the likely origin of infection, but an amplifying source.
  • Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, was briefed about the severity of the virus by his Chinese counterparts around New Year’s Day. In one grim conversation with Dr. Redfield about the virus, Dr. George F. Gao, the director of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, burst into tears.
  • On January 7, China identified the novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2).
  • On January 10, Chinese authorities reported the genetic sequence of the virus, and uploaded it on virological.org and GenBank public databases by January 11-12.
  • The first known death from COVID-19 was January 11.
  • On January 10, Wuhan Institute of Virology released its first test kit for detection of the virus.
  • A few days later (January 17), the German Center for Infection Research (DZIF) at Charité University of Medicine, Berlin, the leading center for medicine in Germany, used the genetic data to create a test kit for the virus, which the WHO adopted and made available to all countries.
  • On January 23, Wuhan imposed complete lockdown of the city of 11 million people when officially only 400 cases had been identified through testing. Clearly, they were signaling to the world that this disease was highly infectious and dangerous.
  • Soon after, another 15 cities were shut down in Hubei province.
  • On January 30, the WHO declared a public health emergency of international concern, the highest level of alert that WHO can issue.

Speaking to Rolling Stone, Dr. Kristian Andersen commented, “In scientific terms, this is lightning speed.” Dr. Andersen is the director of infectious disease genomics at Scripps Research Translational Institute in California and the lead author of an influential paper in Nature on the origins of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. He continued, “This is difficult stuff. We have to remember that all of this happened during flu season, so a lot of people would have had symptoms that looked like COVID-19. But because of flu, discovering a novel coronavirus this fast against that backdrop is simply unprecedented” (italics mine). Andersen also said, “ Zika circulated in Brazil for a year and a half before anyone realized they had an epidemic. Ebola took three months to diagnose. Importantly, these are known pathogens and not a novel pathogen like SARS-CoV-2.”

The Western media has made a lot of noise about Dr. Li Wenliang, a young ophthalmologist, who was reprimanded on January 3 by the Wuhan police authorities, and later died fighting the disease. He was not directly dealing with the disease, nor did he submit a report to the authorities that was suppressed, as the Western media is reporting. Dr. Li shared some information on the infections in his hospital on social media for which the Wuhan police authorities reprimanded him for “spreading rumors” in social media. It was a bureaucratic knee-jerk reaction by the authorities to control social media reports in the early stages of the epidemic. Later, Chinese authorities accepted that this was a mistake, and commended Dr. Li on his work and bravery in combating the epidemic. But this incidentthe official reprimand of Dr. Litook place on January 3, by which time China had already informed the WHO and the U.S. CDC. It had no bearing on the course of the epidemic in China, or anywhere else in the world.

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Have governments in other countries been more transparent? Only look at the way CDC in the United States and the Trump administration dealt with the testing fiasco; the scenario in India in which there is no transparency about how policies are framed; in the UK, where initially the policy, without any public discussion, was to promote herd immunity, risking millions of its citizens! Governments talk of models, but the models they are using (whatever they may be) are shrouded in mystery! In India, a directive has been issued by the government that media can report only information regarding COVID-19 given out by or confirmed by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare or the Indian Council of Medical Research!

The question to answer is: Did this affect the information that was shared with the world? China shared all the information it had on the nature of the infections, the genome sequence of the virus, and that it was seeing not only human-to-human transmission, but also that this transmission was high enough that it necessitated a total lockdown of a city of 11 million, and another 15 shortly after. This at a time when Wuhan, the epicenter of the disease, had only 400 known infections! Action speaks louder than words, and if global leaders were not listening, that is something they have to explain to their people—instead of China-bashing.

The pandemic is only uncovering the deeper fissures that already existed, and widening existing fault lines in the world. The United States has gotten away with brazenly stealing Iran and Venezuela’s wealth, a significant part of which was either within the U.S. banking system, or under the financial control of the United States. Can they do this with China—for instance, refusing to pay back the $1.11 trillion that the United States owes China as debt? Or will any such overreach finally sink the dollar as countries realize the risk in making the dollar the de facto global reserve currency?

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Prabir Purkayastha is the founding editor of Newsclick.in, a digital media platform. He is an activist for science and the Free Software movement.

Report typos and corrections to: [email protected].
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