Trump's effusive praise of China's coronavirus response
By Scott Sumner
Politico has an article that outlines 15 different times that President Trump praised China for its handling of the coronavirus epidemic, between January 22 and February 29. More recently, Trump has become harshly critical of China:
President Donald Trump yanked U.S. funding for the World Health Organization on Tuesday, complaining that the United Nations public health agency was overly deferential to China and had put too much faith in Beijing’s assertions that it had the coronavirus outbreak there was under control.
“Had the WHO done its job to get medical experts into China to objectively assess the situation on the ground and to call out China’s lack of transparency, the outbreak could have been contained at its source with very little death,” the president said Tuesday. “Instead, the W.H.O. willingly took China’s assurances to face value.”
Trump, however, echoed many of those same assurances regarding China and its response to the virus throughout January and February, as the unique coronavirus began to infiltrate countries around the world. Just days before the U.S. recorded its first death from Covid-19, Trump touted China’s government for its transparency and hard work to defeat the coronavirus that causes the illness.
China has responded with overheated rhetoric against any country that criticizes its behavior. What caused this war of words?
One possibility is that new information has appeared, showing that China mishandled the situation. China did mishandle the situation, as did the US and Western Europe, but no important new information has been revealed since January. We’ve known for months that China suggested there was no proof of human-to-human transmission for several weeks after that fact became overwhelmingly likely. And we’ve known for months that the Wuhan government censored local doctors who tried to raise the alarm. So that doesn’t explain the recently changed attitude toward China.
Instead, it seems likely that the US (and to a lesser extent other Western nations) are increasingly frustrated by their inability to handle the epidemic, at a time when East Asian nations have had far more success. Even a few weeks ago, there were widespread predictions that the epidemic would follow a sort of bell-shaped path in the US, with caseloads rising sharply and then falling sharply. That did happen in many nations, but not the US.
A few weeks ago, the death toll in the US was expected to eventually reach about 60,000. Instead, we have already passed 67,000 and in many states the death rate is still increasing. And yet some states are planning to reopen the economy, without first reducing the “R0” reproduction factor below one. The decision to re-open may well be justified, especially given that most states did not experience the overwhelmed hospital systems that many had feared. Nonetheless, it must be frustrating for policymakers to see the problem refuse to go away, despite shutdowns that are extremely costly to the economy.
It’s human nature to want to find scapegoats, and China makes an almost perfect target. The epidemic started in China. It was initially mishandled by China. The China government is arrogant and bullying. China is big. And worst of all, China’s been very successful in reducing the epidemic, while the US has failed.
Given all of the above, it would take an almost superhuman effort to avoid being tempted to scapegoat. And whatever you think of President Trump, it’s clear that he does not have a superhuman ability to refrain from blaming others when things go wrong.
To get a sense of how badly things are going in the US, consider Utah. Among states of more than 2 million people, Utah has been by far the most successful, with only 16 fatalities per million people. Utah also has a civic culture that viewed as unusually cooperative. But even Utah seems unable to reduce the rate of new infections:
Contrast Utah with New Zealand (or Australia), which has reduced new infections to a very low level:
What’s the difference? Auckland has an average daily high of 68 degrees in April, whereas Salt Lake City has an average high of 64. That doesn’t seem decisive. New Zealand is better able to control inflows from outside, but even within the US there was relatively little travel in April.
I’m puzzled. What do you think?