Now that the COVID pandemic is subsiding in most First World countries (barring a resurgence caused by a mutated strain of the virus that erupts in Third World countries), we are returning to a more normal pace of life after 18 months of shut-ins, shutdowns, social distancing, mask mandates, remote schooling for children, business slowdowns, layoffs, unemployment benefits, Economic Impact Payments, and the jumble of vaccinations clinics across the country.
Unfortunately, it is obvious that we Americans did not learn important lessons about how to deal with pandemic. About a third of the population refused to wear masks and abide by social distancing and small-gatherings precautions. Even now, only 50 percent of the national population is fully vaccinated, and about 300 to 700 people are still dying of COVID every day. We are nearing 600,000 total deaths, about 100,000 more than the 1918-19 influenza pandemic, a number far above that of any industrialized nation and lower only than India with its population of 1.4 billion and its deficient health care system.
But we sure taught China some valuable lessons.
Most epidemiologists conclude that the COVID-19 virus first mutated to enable human-to-human transmission in or around Wuhan, the capital city of Hubei Province in south-central China. In December 2019, about 18 months ago, the government of China first reported clusters of coronavirus cases that were highly contagious and potentially virulent with a fatality rate that could exceed five percent.
The prevailing theory is that the viral mutation was transmitted to humans by an animal, most likely a bat, in one of the “wet markets” that are the source of most food for the people of southern China. An alternative theory is that the coronavirus was being studied at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, and it somehow “escaped” from the institute’s laboratories and spread like wildfire through Hubei Province.
We all love science disaster stories, especially like the one told in Stephen King’s The Stand, an apocalyptic novel about a virus that wipes out half the world’s population and all civilization. If we can layer on a secret, evil conspiracy, all the better. Unwittingly, I think, China played right into our fascination with disasters.
As would be expected of a totalitarian state that tightly limits the information its science research facilities are permitted to release, the World Health Organization’s investigation of the Wuhan Institute was restricted to the records and documents approved for WHO perusal by the institute’s directors and virology scientists, which is to say the WHO investigation was no investigation at all. (One could say the same about any potential WHO investigation of science research laboratories controlled by corporations in the United States.) Ultimately, the WHO report was co-written by a group of China’s epidemiologists.
The report is probably correct in its conjecture that the outbreak of COVID-19 in Hubei Province was a horrific but incidental animal-to-human mutation of a common coronavirus, not a blunder that “leaked” the disease from the Wuhan Institute of Virology. And certainly not an intentional release of the virus. What could China have hoped to accomplish by doing that within its own borders? But China’s handling of the incident was a huge public relations blunder.
Government officials in China, where the flow of information is stringently controlled and monitored, obviously did not consider the consequences of rampant spread of misinformation in the free world’s press, and they clearly did not understand that an egomaniacal and narcissistic U.S. President Orange, having denied there was a pandemic and declaring it a hoax and a threat no worse than the annual influenza epidemic, would shift the blame for his failure to quickly and prudently deal with COVID-19 by vilifying China. Epidemiologists in this country say that the U.S. infection rates and deaths could have been halved if President Orange had taken immediate action, but he failed (or refused) to do that until late April 2020 when his advice was that we should drink or inject disinfectant.
When this suggestion was ridiculed by the medical community, President Orange politicized public health safeguards. He began to shout and tweet that social distancing, mask mandates, limited gatherings, zoom meetings, remote schooling, business closures, and all sensible actions to prevent the spread of COVID were frauds and deceptions foisted on the public by his political enemies. Amazingly, about a third of Americans believed him!
He also began to rant that it was not his fault that tens of thousands of Americans were dying from COVID, it was all China’s fault. China! China! China! Those evil and devious Chinese!
The result, in addition to the current upsurge of attacks on Americans of Asian descent, was that the backers of President Orange (white supremacists, racists, Nazis, KKK, misogynists, America-firsters, and other hate groups) became even more xenophobic, if that it possible. China became a focus of their hatred.
As much as I dislike China’s system of government and suppression of minority groups and political dissidents, bellicosity toward China is not in America’s best strategic and economic interests. China’s is the second largest economy in the world, and employing that economic power and to a lesser extent military power in Southeast Asia, South Asia, East Africa, and the Middle East is gradually and inevitably resulting in China’s dominance in those parts of the world where America does not have as much at stake – a kind of de facto “Monroe Doctrine” applied to the Indian Oceanic region that China regards within its sphere of influence.
Over the course of the next 20 years, as China and India continue economic and military growth, the United States will cease to be the unilateral power in that region. Despite the saber rattling of President Orange, the better foreign policy is cooperating with the new elephant in the room, not beating it.
To return to the lessons that China learned during this 18-month period of the COVID-19 pandemic: that is obvious. China learned that Americans – when their leaders are as incompetent and divisive as President Orange, Mitch McConnell, Kevin McCarthy, Josh Hawley, Marjorie Taylor Greene, et al – will not coalesce but will turn on one another in times of crisis. China learned those leaders will call for voter suppression and prejudice and malice toward minorities. China learned they will promote xenophobic and vitriolic behaviors among the fringe groups that are their most loyal acolytes. China learned they will sacrifice American democracy on the altar of white privilege.
An America in turmoil for the next couple decades is in China’s (and Russia’s) best interests. Strategically and economically, a fractured and deeply divided America benefits China as it slowly and surely progresses with its influence over the third of the globe that is contiguous to the East China Sea and the Indian Ocean, rather than cooperating with U.S. interests.
China was the source of the COVID-19 pandemic, but China almost certainly did not deny or ignore the outbreak, or intentionally cause it. China certainly did learn that incompetent American leadership in times of crisis will cause divisiveness and dysfunction that will be to China’s benefit.
Looking toward the political season of 2022 and 2024, expect a flood of disinformation that will come out of China (and Russia) that will stoke social animosity and its consequent divisiveness and dysfunction. It won’t even require something as drastic as a pandemic; it will only require that, as happened during the 18 months of COVID, people will believe the falsehoods they are told. All it will require is the infectious medium of the internet and a populace that refuses to investigate misinformation.
We taught China a good lesson.