President Trump's Mistakes Do Not Absolve China of its Responsibility for the Coronavirus Pandemic

Blame isn’t some finite material like gold or uranium. It isn’t something that you can only dish out in limited portions. There are times when you can pin the blame for a bad situation on a single mistake by a single person. Other times, you can spread it around to dozens, or hundreds, or maybe even thousands of people who all played a part in creating a crisis. 

The current pandemic falls into that second category. It is a pandemic that exists in part because of mistakes made by world leaders like President Trump, international organizations like the WHO, and even private citizens who behave like spoiled children when they’re tasked with the very minor inconvenience of wearing a mask when they go shopping. 

But out of all the people and institutions who deserve their fair share of blame for this pandemic, it is the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) that deserves the most. 

When this pandemic started, President Trump didn’t just drop the ball; he dropped a whole truckload of balls and then blamed everyone around him for not cleaning up the mess he himself created. In January, he insisted that the federal government had everything under control and that “it’s going to be just fine.” Less than two weeks later, he again assured Americans that “we think we have it very well under control,” adding that the small number of then-infected Americans “are all recuperating successfully.” And at the end of February, when the number of confirmed cases had grown to 15, he claimed that "the risk to the American people remains very low.”

Then came the reports of equipment shortages. Gloves, masks, and other personal protective equipment became impossible to find. Makeshift morgues began popping up in New York City as the death toll continued to climb. People exhibiting symptoms of the virus complained that they couldn’t get tested to find out if they had been infected. Within a few short months of the first confirmed coronavirus case in the United States, it became crystal clear to most Americans that the Trump administration had been caught with their pants down. 

Predictably, President Trump has tried sidestepping accusations that his administration failed to act quickly enough to slow the spread of the virus and make sure that health care workers had all the PPE they needed. In March, he refused to take any responsibility for the lack of testing and passed the buck to his predecessor, former President Barack Obama. In April, he ripped the WHO’s response to the crisis, accusing them of providing “a faulty recommendation” on precautionary travel restrictions and threatening to withhold future funding to the organization.

More recently, he has turned his focus to China, whom he had originally praised for their supposed transparency in the early stages of the pandemic. Now, though, he’s singing a very different tune, and many in the media have responded by downplaying the CCP’s egregious conduct in an obvious bid to keep the focus on Trump’s own incompetence. 

I get it. It’s an election year, and a lot of people are rooting for the president to lose. I’m one of them! And yes, Trump’s response to the coronavirus pandemic has been inexcusably insufficient. He refused to take the threat of a pandemic seriously until it was too late, and he deserves to be held accountable for that. But one has to wonder why, if his response was so uniquely awful as to warrant the endless criticism being directed his way, so many other countries, including Italy, France, Spain, Brazil, and the United Kingdom haven’t fared any better than the United States. And to find the answer, one need look no further than how the CCP chose to handle the initial outbreak in Wuhan last year.

Chinese officials went to great lengths to keep the rest of the world in the dark about the extent of the threat posed by COVID-19. Last December, Wuhan Doctor Li Wenliang sent out a warning about the virus to colleagues in a group a chat. He was subsequently accused of “disturbing the social order” by the Wuhan Public Security Bureau and threatened him with prosecution if he refused to keep his mouth shut about the virus. He then contracted the virus himself and passed away in February. 

Wenliang had been acting on information provided by Doctor Ai Fen, head of the emergency department at Wuhan Central Hospital. She, too, was reprimanded for sharing information about the virus and ordered to zip her lips from that point forward. She later gave an interview to a state-run media outlet about the incident, though the interview was quickly scrubbed from their WeChat account.

A February report in Singapore’s The Strait Times details how Chinese officials sat on evidence of human-to-human transmission for weeks. According to the report, an anonymous Chinese employee alleged that his genomics company had been instructed to destroy all of its coronavirus testing samples by someone from the Hubei Provincial Health Commission. Two days later, on January 3, China’s National Health Commission issued a directive prohibiting the publication of new information related to the virus. More than two weeks passed before Doctor Zhong Nanshan confirmed in a television interview that the disease could indeed be transmitted between people.

In April, Politico claimed that a European Union report on coronavirus disinformation was changed after Chinese diplomats brought their objections to the EU. References to a China-run global disinformation campaign were edited out of the final version of the report.

Earlier this month, Germany’s Der Spiegel claimed that the German Federal Intelligence Service had concluded that, back in January, Chinese President Xi Jinping asked WHO Director Tedros Ghebreyesus to refrain from declaring a pandemic for several weeks despite the organization’s concerns that the outbreak could evolve into a genuine global crisis. 

The Department of Homeland Security jumped into the fray with its own accusation that China withheld vital information pertaining to the severity of the Wuhan outbreak and the potential transmissibility of the virus in order to procure all the PPE it needed before the eventual rise of global demand. 

Straight out of the gate, Chinese officials did almost everything they could to conceal the true nature of the coronavirus threat from the global community. When evidence of a cover-up began to surface, they tried to suppress as much of that evidence as they could. They even went so far as to circulate a baseless conspiracy theory that the Wuhan outbreak was the fault of American military servicemen who brought the virus to Wuhan.

Did President Trump make numerous mistakes throughout the course of this pandemic? Yes, but China made more.

Has President Trump been completely honest with the American people throughout the course of this pandemic? No, but China has been infinitely more dishonest, and with much greater frequency than he has. No reasonable person could possibly argue otherwise.

Did President Trump’s mishandling of the pandemic cost lives? Yes, but China’s mishandling of the pandemic almost certainly cost many more lives, perhaps even by orders of magnitude.

None of this absolves Trump or his administration of their mistakes. They deserve to have their actions scrutinized, their lack of preparation called out, and their lies dissected and analyzed. But the bottom line is that if China had been more open and honest about what was happening in Wuhan from the beginning, both the Trump administration and the world at large would have had time to prepare themselves for what was to come and plan accordingly. That they were given no such opportunity is the fault of the Chinese government and the Chinese government alone. Never forget that.

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