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When coronavirus meets US nationalism

Reading time: 7 minutes

The death toll from coronavirus in the UK doubled in one day.[1] Italy reported 21,157 cases[2] so far. Spain is going under a nationwide lockdown.[3] People wake up every day to the same spiraling news, filling themselves with either denial or panic – the whole gamut of conflicting emotions that some inaccurately compared to the fear accompanying the 2008 financial crisis. Misinformation preponderates among the avalanche of facts. Yet, the policy response to the crisis remains in its early stages: leaders are more politically- than risk-oriented, businessmen seem more disturbed with their disrupted supply chains, rather than the health of their customers. For that reason, the global authorities need to take a lead in averting the chaos – “the European Commission contributed €232 million, the World Bank is making $12bn available to support poorer countries, and the IMF has offered $50bn” [4], writes the Financial Times. In the light of the increasing number of deaths and already palpable scale of economic disruption, this does not seem remote enough. So far, the policy reaction is a tiny proportion of what the world could observe in response to the collapse of one of the world’s largest international banks, Lehman Brothers, in 2008.

Yet, this time people are dying, which devolves an increasing responsibility towards, and spreads even more panic into, the political circles. Observing a once-role-model democracy, led by a fierce populist Donald Trump, one is exposed to the ideas that fall short of the moral standards, which should be particularly kept up by the global governance in the light of the ongoing events.

Regardless of the precautionary measures President Trump would adopt in the times of a global pandemic, once calling the coronavirus outbreak a “hoax”, he has ultimately deprived himself of any privilege to not become labeled as a “hypocrite”. With regard to his coronavirus policies, Mr. President remains under the strong pressure exerted by the international community and the Americans themselves. Thus, whether it is an imposed ban on travel or a declaration of a national emergency, the measures he has been implementing are a result of the intense demagoguery. If left on his own devices, Trump would do everything to convey that he has a grip on the outbreak as he attempted to communicate at the beginning of the crisis.

Be that as it may, the demagoguery – accompanied by the nationalistic ideas – is manifested in the skeptical execution of precautionary measures by Trump’s administration. Is it an attempt to balance financial flows or rather an effect of the religious and ideological objections? As Trump said, the pandemic comes from a “foreign virus”, selling the people on his nationalist views. If the people and the White House would have remained as skeptic towards Trump’s conservative propaganda as Mr. President is towards the WHO health advisors, perhaps some of 1629[5] cases might have been avoided. With a population of 327 million people, the Department of Health can test only 6,000[6] people per day. By contrast, South Korea, with a population of 51 million people, is testing 10,000 a day.

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And that is when the coronavirus encounters the American nationalism: if only Mr. President did not project his radical isolationist views onto the general public,federal bureaucratic delays contributing to the shortage of US kits might have been fixed by an import of the kits from Germany, as approved by WHO. Trump’s notable omission of any strategy allowing to increase US capacity to test for infections – an effect of his irrationally unbounded beliefs – prevented the effective precautionary measures to isolate clusters, trace the movement of the virus and make critical decisions on where the biggest risks lie. As much as Trump’s skepticism stops him from following the steps taken by Taiwan or Singapore, where the spread of the virus has been halted and is, currently, under strict control, the accurate testing is the most viable method to avoid resorting to the Chinese drastic measures. As mentioned by the WHO president, the only solution is “testing, testing, testing”. Hence, it is the highest time Trump began cooperating, instead of putting on a display his misinformed opinions. This is, first and foremost, the time of health emergency, not US presidential elections. Nationalism is currently no more than an obstacle in the path to the development of the measures needed to stop the virus. The coronavirus knows no borders and has no political allies – something the political authority is apparently still unable to fully grasp.

Another measure that loomed over the United States in the recent days, and soon will cover Europe, has been the ban imposed on the citizens of many European nations from entering the US for 30 days. Instead of developing a smart, concise plan of actions that would reassure the Americans that the healthcare can stabilize the situation; that the leaders do their best to face the chaos; that the emergency services will go out of their way to help the affected ones, Trump has become the creator of unnecessary panic. On top of Trump’s misconduct is the exclusion of the countries outside the 26-nation Schengen common visa area from the ban, knowing that Great Britain has almost half the number of US infections. Is it that the diplomatic relationship with Prime Minister Boris Johnson is too fragile to experiment with, or is public health and safety not a sufficient argument for Mr. Trump to adopt drastic measures? Often deeply moved by the economic recessions, Trump remained delusional even being aware of the travel restrictions hitting European and US airlines. The level of economic self-sufficiency once reached by the USSR seems out of reach for the US economy despite Trump’s aspirations. Not until he will be able to guarantee full autarky, should Trump cooperate with the international community and assure that, even in the times of acute crisis, the US is a reliable ally.

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This hyper-globalized world, wheredisease can rapidly spread far and wide, also has its bright side: multiple information channels increasing social awareness. Yet still, firstly, what intends to inform, increasingly becomes disinformation; no filter is applied to the propagandist news people are exposed to daily. Consequently, many can be easily manipulated. The problem does not stop here: the inequality in access to information offers an upper hand to the political manipulations that, in turn, bring political gains to the foreground. Ethical journalism swaps places with political propaganda aiming to shape general opinion. Not many are informed, and even fewer are warned; instead, a myriad of people becomes delusional and panicked. Perfectly aware of the inequality, Mr. Trump – riddled with the demagogic rhetoric – takes full advantage of it, seeming to forget that some people have been fooled too many times not to be careful. A posteriori knowledge is not the only source of information about misinformation though. The impression of incompetence and unreliability stems also from the inconsistency within the news. Although the President suggested in his speech that the ban –  the first of this type since the Second World War – will hit the cargo, the White House later opposed these words, speaking about the exclusion of goods and cargo from the ban as it is to be applied solely to the human movement. The American news – a paradigm of misinformation – put Trump’s ignorance and ill-consideration on a full display. The attitude of President Trump is no more than a representation of a mindset of a high-class American wrapped in the luxuries of the hyper-globalized world, unaware of the risks of COVID-19.

Neither Trump’s moral standards, nor the personal fear of the global pandemics, have changed his mind. The President’s first speeches on the crisis were imbued with ignorance: “Stay calm. This will go away”. Yet, when the US stock market fell by 20 percent, wiping out most of Trump’s administration gains, and the WHO declared a global pandemic, Trump decided to resort to the good old opportunism. All things considered, the downplay of the threat was no longer beneficial for the American leader. There is, however, a vast distinction between the change in the rhetoric and the change of actions. To what extent is Mr. President just calming the waters? Widespread confusion surrounds Trump’s political moves. Contradictory as it may seem, Trump reassured the American public with his novel declarations and bans, at the same time opposing the WHO advice “against international travel restrictions that stifle the flow of medicines and aid, which may divert resources from other interventions”[7].  As panic is not advised, neither is arrogance. And by deflecting the general attention to the political election campaigns blaming the Democratic presidential debate for the stock market decline, the president not only undermines the dire threats but also uses the critical situation for his own benefits, while his political rivals are falling into disrepute. When can we expect a change of mind, not a change of rhetoric, Mr. President? As long as the standards of global governance seethe with immorality and conspiracies, the opportunist ideas will echo through the walls of the governmental offices. 

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Rarely does Trump see an inch beyond his own nose, downplaying the coronavirus to a conspiracy of his liberal political rivals, intended to undermine his prospects for the re-election. As Machiavellian as he is, Trump sticks to his populist ideas designed to bring down the house. The threat no longer relatesto all those who now naively follow his conservative beliefs that manipulate, disinform and spread panic; the ignorance flowing through the news poses the risk to all of us. In the light of the international health emergency, the people need multilateral actions that require much more from the politicians than just a promise. It is not about political victory anymore; it is about humility, responding collectively and striving for reliable information. Egotism and propaganda need to give way to the strong political will – and that is the current lie of the land that the President needs to comprehend. With the lives of so many on the stake, there is no time for and no sense in fooling people. The pathogens do not care about the established hierarchy, privileges or ideology.

What the world needs is no longer a sensation, a drama or poor pieces of journalism. We need fundraising combined with a coordinated effort to identify, trial and make available potential treatments. Covid-19 should be a wake-up call to rethink our approach to global health security. For it is not about whether the countries can adopt measures similar to Taiwan and Singapore, but whether they will show the political will to do it. “The World Health Organization has asked for $675m to lead the global response and has been given a fraction of that so far. The Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations needs $2bn” to intensify its effort to develop a vaccine. What the data show is that the multilateral response for the crisis is within our reach. Since the 2008 crisis, a myriad of global donators has spent trillions of dollars to support global financial stability. Do we care that much less about health security?


[1] Data for 14 March 2020
[2] Data for 14 March 2020
[3] Data for 14 March 2020
[4] “Coronavirus Response Must Be ‘Never Again’”. Ft.Com, 2020
[5] Data for March 13th, 2020
[6] Robinson Meyer, Alexis C. Madrigal. “Exclusive: The Strongest Evidence Yet That America Is Botching Coronavirus Testing”. The Atlantic, 2020
[7] “Donald Trump’S Troubling Coronavirus Address”. Ft.Com, 2020

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