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Neil Patel / May 22, 2020

Who's to Blame: Trump or China?

The big coronavirus debate is between blaming President Donald Trump and blaming China for the pandemic.

The big coronavirus debate is between blaming President Donald Trump and blaming China for the pandemic. The usual suspects are lined up on each side. To anybody who pauses to think for a second, it’s clear the two options are not mutually exclusive. But that’s still how the debate is playing out in the press.

The list of China’s misdeeds when it comes to this pandemic is long. The rates of infection would be quite different if China had acted responsibly at the outset. That doesn’t mean that the U.S. government response — at both federal and state levels — has been perfect either. There’s plenty of blame to go around (and some credit, too).

First, it’s clear our country should have been better prepared for a pandemic. It’s unfair to blame Trump exclusively on this matter, since our current state of preparedness is defined by policy choices made by many successive presidential administrations.

To take just one example, our national strategic stockpile was established in 1999. It holds masks, medicines and other protective equipment for emergency situations. The government is supposed to have supply plans to supplement these stocks when needed. However, at the onset of the pandemic, the combination of low stocks, extremely limited domestic production capabilities and foreign restrictions on exports of these goods left us in a bind. We should have had more equipment stockpiled, but more importantly, we should have foreseen the vulnerability we have created by offshoring the production of these emergency supplies.

We had so few masks at the outset that — in an effort to save them for the medical and other emergency personnel who needed them most — our government chose to lie to us by bizarrely claiming masks are not helpful unless you are a first responder or already sick. Though this claim was driven by a noble purpose, its falsity was laid bare by countries around the world that mandated mask use in public and saw great success. The government has now tacitly admitted their early mask advice was never true. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now recommends we wear masks in public places to slow transmission of the disease. Trust in the advice we get from our experts is important. Breaking that trust was not a great first step.

Another huge U.S. policy mistake — this one mostly at the state level — has to do with nursing homes, which have become ground zero for disease transmission. Social distancing is difficult in an institutional nursing home environment filled with our highest-risk citizens. Our greatest national mistake has been failing to protect these older Americans. In the worst case, New York state actually mandated that nursing homes accept every coronavirus-positive patient. The results were deadly. Ninety-eight people died in a single facility in New York City. The state has now reversed this mandate and passed a new regulation that patients must test negative before regular hospitals can return them to nursing homes.

These are just a few examples of policy mistakes made in the U.S. There are other policies we can second-guess as well, but none takes away from the case against China. Reports indicate that the first case of COVID-19 may have been discovered in China as early as November 2019. China’s initial response to the virus was defined by secrecy and misinformation. Chinese doctors who tried to speak out and tell the truth were discredited or even “disappeared.” China didn’t even acknowledge human-to-human transmission of the virus until late January. During this period, China pressured the World Health Organization against declaring the virus a global health emergency.

An intelligence report from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security found that “ the Chinese government intentionally concealed the severity of COVID-19 from the International community in early January while it stockpiled medical supplies by both increasing imports and decreasing exports.” China also isolated Wuhan, the virus hub, from the rest of China while continuing to allow international travel. When Trump limited travel to the U.S. from China, the Chinese government denounced the action.

Why would China limit domestic travel to the hotspot but allow international travel to continue? The entire timeline of China’s actions is hard to misconstrue. This may be a natural disaster, but it was helped along by a disastrous response by those with the power to help snub it at the outset. The virus has now killed over 325,000 people worldwide, according to official counts. We will need an official accounting of China’s disastrous actions before we can fully understand what happened.

The “blame China versus blame Trump” narrative perpetuated by the media is yet another sad politicization of an inherently nonpolitical topic. Trump is in charge of the federal government. The federal government, despite any politician’s claims to the contrary, is never going to respond perfectly to a situation like this pandemic. The situation is too fluid, and despite their reluctance to admit it, our experts still don’t fully understand this disease.

Given this dynamic, despite mistakenly downplaying the disease at its onset, the president and his entire team on balance deserve more praise than they have been given. But even for those who feel otherwise, no amount of U.S. government culpability can negate the Chinese culpability at the outset of the event. Or, in other words, it’s OK Trump-haters; you can admit China’s role in this pandemic without losing your never-Trump street cred. To do otherwise is to deny reality.

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