WASHINGTON (Sinclair Broadcast Group) — President Donald Trump is facing growing calls from his base to hold China accountable for the coronavirus outbreak ravaging parts of the United States, but experts say assigning blame for the spread of the virus is complicated and attempting to level punishment against Beijing could pose risks.
The Trump administration has sent mixed signals about its stance toward China since the virus emerged, with officials often excoriating Beijing for not being more transparent but the president lobbing praise at Chinese President Xi Jinping for his handling of the crisis. Trump has also at times criticized China’s questionable statistics and insisted for weeks on calling COVID-19 a “Chinese virus.”
Many experts agree China has likely downplayed the impact of the outbreak, underreporting infections and deaths and trying to silence whistleblowers. U.S. officials have claimed China’s lowballing of the numbers early on gave the rest of the world a skewed understanding of how dangerous the virus was and led other countries to underprepare.
"The reality is that China's been more transparent with respect to the coronavirus than certainly they were for other infectious diseases over the last 15 years," Vice President Mike Pence told CNN last week. "But what appears evident now is long before the world learned in December, China was dealing with this, maybe as much as a month earlier than that."
Even as they work more openly with the rest of the world, Chinese officials have further angered the Trump administration by promoting propaganda that falsely blames the U.S. military for the outbreak.
A British think tank, the Henry Jackson Society, estimated Beijing is liable for at least $4 trillion worth of damage because of its censorship of information about the virus. A study by researchers at the University of Southampton claimed the spread of the virus would have been reduced by 95% if China had acted to contain it three weeks earlier.
“The blame for COVID-19’s spread from China’s Wuhan province to a full-blown global pandemic lies squarely at the feet of the Chinese Communist Party and its pattern of dishonesty. Had they fought the spread instead of denying the problem, things would be much different today,” Rep. Roger Marshall, a former obstetrician, said in a Fox News op-ed Tuesday.
However, some have argued against antagonizing China in the midst of a global health crisis. A statement signed by dozens of former diplomats and foreign policy experts acknowledged that China has “much to answer for” but emphasized cooperation between Washington and Beijing as a more urgent priority.
“In time, in order to prevent or prepare for future outbreaks, there will be a need for a global review of the coronavirus pandemic: its origins, the conditions that allowed it to spread, the failure of the institutions tasked with response, and the potential fragility of medical supply chains so critical to the health and safety of billions,” said the statement released by the 21st Century China Center at UC San Diego. “But for now, as the pandemic sweeps the globe, the focus should be on finding the resolve to work together to contain and defeat the virus at home and abroad.”
According to Deborah Seligsohn, an assistant professor at Villanova University who previously served as a foreign service officer in Beijing for the State Department, attempting to assign responsibility for a virus outbreak to any country is misguided and could have dangerous repercussions for future pandemics.
“There’s never been a formal procedure even suggested for this before, and it would be highly counterproductive,” she said. “Diseases don’t just break out in China – they occur all over the world We want all countries to cooperate, and therefore don’t want to make countries in future outbreaks worry about being ‘held responsible.’”
Seligsohn also credited China with moving quickly to share the virus genome once it did begin reporting data in January, much faster than during the 2002 SARS outbreak, and she questioned how much more China could have realistically done to prevent the disease from crossing borders. By the time the first deaths from the virus were identified in Wuhan, there had already been extensive travel in and out of the area that could have carried it elsewhere.
“I think we can say that the Chinese have worked pretty hard on this, that there was a period in early January where they weren’t reporting data, but that was after they had warned the world and long after people had traveled normally and started to seed epidemics in other parts of the world,” she said.
Scott Kennedy, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said much is still unknown about how the virus originated and how much the Chinese government deliberately covered up. But unlike with reparations for war, there is no obvious intent to do harm, and mistakes made by other countries have also exacerbated the damage done by the virus.
“To what extent do we put responsibility on China’s shoulders versus on the shoulders of different governments and their own responses?” Kennedy asked.
Despite an initial lack of reliable information from the Chinese government, recent reports suggest the Trump administration failed to heed other warnings of the potential threat posed by the outbreak. ABC News reported Wednesday the National Center for Medical Intelligence picked up on the contagion in late November and raised alarm with the Pentagon and the White House that it could be a “cataclysmic event.”
According to The New York Times, White House trade adviser Peter Navarro also wrote a memo to the National Security Council in late January warning that the coronavirus could become “a full-blown pandemic,” threatening millions of American lives. A month later, Navarro claimed in another memo that the virus could infect up to 100 million Americans, but it is unclear if the president ever saw either document.
Amid warnings from public health experts, President Trump continued to publicly minimize the risk of an outbreak throughout February and early March, even as cases began to rise in the U.S. Critics have accused the Trump administration of moving too slowly to institute widespread testing and to procure protective equipment that hospitals say is still in short supply.
“Almost every country in the world has made mistakes in handling this disease, and that very much includes our own,” Seligsohn said. “We want to encourage better outcomes, not lead to hiding of information.”
Allies of the president have floated several options for retaliation against Beijing, though it is unclear how hard of a line Trump is willing to take. A bipartisan group of lawmakers in the House has already introduced a largely symbolic resolution denouncing China for “multiple, serious mistakes in the early stages of the COVID-19 outbreak that heightened the severity and spread of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.”
In an interview with Sean Hannity on Fox News Monday, Sen. Lindsey Graham, S.C., said the world should “send China the bill” for the outbreak and suggested the U.S. try to get some of its debt to Beijing forgiven as a form of compensation.
“China’s actions are unforgivable. Should China forgive U.S. loans and handle some of the cost for what they did?” Graham said.
Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., declared China’s government “responsible” for the global outbreak in a Fox News op-ed, calling for an international investigation, with or without Beijing’s cooperation. He also argued for quantifying China’s liability and “designing a way to secure payment from Beijing.”
“The Chinese Communist Party cannot make families whole again or easily replace jobs lost to this pandemic. But the Party can ease the pain that it has caused,” Hawley wrote.
In a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo this week, Sen. Chris Smith, R-N.J., suggested using the Global Magnitsky Act to target specific Chinese officials who sought to silence doctors and journalists who spoke out about the outbreak. Others have proposed moving to reduce U.S. reliance on China for medical supplies and other goods.
According to Politico, the president is also being pressed by evangelical leaders who see the outbreak as an opportunity to reevaluate the U.S. relationship with a country that persecutes its Christian minority. Some have stressed the importance of support from conservative evangelicals to Trump’s chances for reelection.
“China lied about the genesis of the virus and under-reported their own cases. These are actions that cannot be ignored and for which China must be held responsible, and I think taking action to do that only serves to deepen the president's commitment,” Ralph Reed, co-founder of the Faith & Freedom Coalition, told Politico.
Although he was skeptical of explicitly punitive action, Kennedy said a transparent, multilateral international investigation of the origins of the outbreak would be appropriate. If such a probe turns up blatant and deliberately deceptive wrongdoing by officials in China, that could drastically relations with Beijing going forward.
“Certainly, scientists and governments need to do a thorough investigation into the origins of this and into its spread,” he said. “That’s important, not just for assigning blame but for preventing future pandemics and reducing the toll they have on our world.”
The political pressure to somehow punish China could conflict with Trump’s desire to maintain a friendship with President Xi and to continue advancing trade negotiations that had been central to his reelection pitch until the coronavirus outbreak began. The U.S. and China had agreed to “phase one” of a new trade deal, but the economic upheaval caused by the virus might derail those commitments.
Some of the measures lawmakers have proposed would require significant buy-in from foreign allies, many of whom have accepted aid from China as they grapple with the virus themselves. They might not share the Trump administration’s appetite for retribution, and unilateral action by the U.S. could lack credibility on the world stage.
“If there’s very explicit evidence where you can target a specific official or organization in China and you get widespread global recognition of that, then I think it’s possible there’d be a lot of credibility with these types of efforts,” Kennedy said. “If it's done unilaterally by the U.S.... then I think it could be quite problematic, not just for the bilateral relationship but the U.S. relationship with other countries.”
One possible response to this crisis that President Trump has embraced publicly is cutting off U.S. funding for the World Health Organization over what he claims is a “China-centric” bias. The United Nations-backed WHO has faced withering criticism from Republicans for accepting some of China’s dubious claims about the virus, lauding the communist regime’s apparent success in containing the outbreak, and waiting until March to declare a global pandemic.
“They called it wrong,” Trump said at a White House briefing Tuesday night. “They really missed the call. They could have called it months earlier. They would have known, and they should have known. And they probably did know, so we'll be looking into that very carefully.”
Dr. Deborah Birx, coordinator of the White House coronavirus task force, downplayed the president’s threat on ABC’s “Good Morning America,” likening it to reviews the U.S. has done of the WHO’s response to previous outbreaks.
"In the history of the United States and the World Health Organization, we have had times when we've done really in-depth analysis of what has happened. When the president said he was holding funds, he didn't say he was restricting and keeping funds permanently away, but instead said, let's investigate what happened," Birx said.
Seligsohn defended the WHO’s handling of a delicate diplomatic situation. Criticizing China or questioning its honesty at a time when WHO scientists needed access to the country to conduct potentially life-saving research could have hindered the global response.
“The World Health Organization only gains access to countries when those countries allow it,” she said. “So its normal practice is to be cooperative. Imagine if it demanded to come into the United States, criticizing us before they arrived. I doubt any U.S. President would welcome that.”
In response to Trump’s attacks Wednesday, WHO Director Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus accused the president of politicizing the outbreak.
“If you don’t want many more body bags you refrain from politicizing it – please quarantine politicizing COVID,” he told reporters, stressing the importance of global cooperation, particularly between the U.S. and China, to defeat the pandemic.