Global response to coronavirus falters as pandemic worsens and Trump lashes out at China

President Trump credits companies like 3M and Ford for their efforts to distribute products to the hardest hit areas during the COVID-19 crisis. USA TODAY

WASHINGTON – After Secretary of State Mike Pompeo concluded a "virtual" summit on Wednesday with top diplomats from six other countries, he struck a note of solidarity with U.S. allies as the world faces down a common enemy: the coronavirus pandemic.  

"I made it clear to our G7 partners – especially to our friends in Italy and the rest of Europe – that the United States remains committed to assisting them in all ways possible," Pompeo told reporters at the State Department after his private video conference with foreign ministers from Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and the United Kingdom. 

But the Trump administration has not championed an international response to the global disease threat – nor have other world leaders, experts say.

"It’s been very chaotic,” said Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations and director of global health studies at Seton Hall University's School of Diplomacy and International Relations.

Indeed, after the G7 meeting ended, a German news outlet reported that the seven foreign ministers could not agree on a joint statement because Pompeo insisted on using "Wuhan virus" to describe the pandemic, a move seen as deliberately provocative toward China. Pompeo essentially confirmed that report Thursday. 

“Different countries take different approaches," Pompeo told conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt Thursday when asked about that report. "My theory is we should always be accurate with respect to how we identify something.  This virus began in Wuhan; I’ve referred to it as the Wuhan virus.”

During other international crises – such as the Ebola outbreak in 2014 and the global economic meltdown in 2008 – world leaders joined forces to confront the threat of disease and economic collapse. But the reaction to COVID-19 has been very "state-centric," Huang said, with most afflicted countries turning inward. 

Across the globe, individual governments are competing to secure scarce medical supplies from a strained global supply chain, closing borders with little to no notice to their neighbors, and lobbing verbal broadsides that threaten to deepen the discord. 

"The world today that’s impacted by this is terribly fractured, terribly fragmented," said Stephen Morrison, director of the Global Health Policy Center at the Center for Strategic and International Affairs, a Washington think tank. "We don’t see much on the horizon in terms of promising diplomatic initiatives to bring the major powers and others together to address both the pandemic virus crisis, as well as the economic dislocations that it’s brought forward."

One reason: The coronavirus is unprecedented in the force and speed with which it has spread from one country to the next. First reported by Chinese officials in late December, it has now infected at least 415,000 people across more than 150 countries, according to a Johns Hopkins University tracker.  

"Typically on an international level, the World Health Organization goes into full throttle," in response to disease outbreaks, as does the United Nations, said Rep. Michael McCaul, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

But the world was "caught off guard" by coronavirus, he said. "And once it began hitting the United States, it’s been a little bit of a catch-up game."

Morrison and others say the virus struck also at a particularly problematic time, when international institutions have been weakened and a nationalistic fervor has swept many governments.    

In those countries best positioned to rally an international response, several leaders greeted the outbreak "with a particular level of skepticism" and "were somewhat dismissive of the notion that there needed to be high-level coordinated action," Morrison said. "Certainly that was true in Washington, in London, in Rome, and elsewhere."

In Washington, the Trump administration has, among other steps, shut down travel from Europe without consultation, scorched Iran for its handling of the epidemic, tried to buy up scarce medical equipment from U.S. allies that are themselves under siege with coronavirus cases, and accused China of a virus cover-up.

"China was very secretive, okay?" President Donald Trump said during a March 21 briefing on the U.S. coronavirus response. "Very, very secretive. And that's unfortunate." 

There were also reports that the Trump administration offered a large sum of money to a Germany company working to develop a coronavirus vaccine, sparking fears the U.S. was trying gain exclusive rights to inoculate Americans first. Both the German firm and the White House denied the report, but it highlighted the sense that this was an every-man-for-himself battle and demonstrated that traditional allies were eyeing each other with new suspicions.

Heather Conley, director of the Europe program at CSIS, said it's not only the U.S. that has responded to the pandemic with a unilateralist bent.

"There is just an absolute scarcity of coordination and collaboration in Europe," she said.

"This is going to be a soul-searching moment for the European Union," because it’s created the potential for solidarity, coordination and collaboration across the EU, Conley said. Instead, "what we’ve seen is that this pandemic has completely laid bare that ... those institutions are not going to be used for this great challenge."

Pompeo has echoed Trump in criticizing China. At Wednesday's news conference, the secretary of state pivoted from touting America's global generosity to attacking China for what he has labeled a "cover-up" of the initial outbreak.

“The Chinese Communist Party poses a substantial threat to our health and way of life, as the Wuhan virus outbreak clearly has demonstrated," Pompeo said, refusing to use the official medical name – COVID-19 – despite objections from Chinese officials and public health experts who say it could lead to stigmatization and attacks on Asians. 

Pompeo noted that China was the first to resist international help. Officials suppressed reports about the outbreak and sought to punish doctors who raised alarms. Xi Jinping’s government refused to allow U.S. medical experts to go to Wuhan, the initial epicenter, and brushed off the Trump administration’s offer of financial assistance.

"We tried ... from the opening days to get our scientists, our experts on the ground there so that we could begin to assist in the global response to what began there in China, but we weren’t able to do that," Pompeo said Wednesday. 

Chinese officials have since been more transparent, sharing the virus' genome sequence and other vital data. And some experts fear that picking a fight with China now is counterproductive, particularly because the country dominates the global supply chain for in-demand medical products. 

"We should be cooperating with China. This is not a good time for us or for China to say 'Let’s have a spitting match'," said Gayle Smith, who served on the National Security Council and other top positions in the Obama administration. “The fact that we’re interconnected and dependent, it isn’t a political position. It’s a statement of fact." 

Smith worked at the White House when President Barack Obama grappled with the Ebola outbreak, and she said he badgered other world leaders to cobble together a campaign against the disease.

"He called pretty much every leader on the planet to say ‘Here’s what we’re doing. we’ve got this many doctors, this much money'," Smith recalled. Then he would say: "'What are you going to do? How much money can you put in? How many health care workers? He really pressed everybody." 

As the coronavirus continues its steady march, Smith noted, scientists, epidemiologists and other experts are sharing their research and other information about the virus across borders. 

But, she added, "at the level of global political leadership, there’s a real stark absence of the kind of international collaboration that's needed."

Even if the scientists keep cooperating as they race to develop a vaccine, Huang said he doesn’t foresee that happening on the political front.  

He fears if and when a vaccine becomes available, those countries that have the capacity to manufacture it “will first satisfy the needs of their people and those countries that do not have the capacity will have to wait. This will probably cause more death and more suffering.”


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