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(First published on March 21st, 2020)

As the United States was bracing itself for an impact and the US President and many conservative pundits were still comparing the coronavirus to influenza, Tucker Carlson, a Fox News host with a long history of racist remarks, broke ranks with the army of Trump surrogates and insisted that it was a far bigger challenge than influenza. He pointed out that one in a thousand dies of influenza, however, the mortality rate in case of Covid-19 was over 3%. The liberal media which forgives a person’s past excesses the moment he or she criticises Trump did the same in this case. The clip of Mr Carlson went viral in the liberal and anti-Trump circles. It took people some time to notice what they were redistributing. The sole purpose of Mr Carlson’s disagreement with President Trump was not to highlight the seriousness of the challenge of what he referred to as the “Chinese coronavirus”. It was a calculated risk. Disagree with Trump when he fails to see a situation through the prism of racism and force him to change his position. When the stock markets started crashing and the true extent of the disease was known, the US President started calling it the Chinese virus. When asked about the change he stated that the name indicated the place of the virus’ origin and not any underlying racism. Mr Trump also complained that China did not warn America of the virulence of the disease in time.

On the Chinese side too, Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian recently shared some claims on Twitter that the virus in fact did not originate in China but was first encountered in the US. This caused an outrage in the liberal media circles including CNN. Make a mental note of all names given above and the ones to follow because we will return to them for some context. For now, however, notice that the blame game regarding the matter is not new. As the virus was wreaking havoc in China, Tom Cotton, the junior US Senator from Arkansas and Trump administration’s one time favourite for the post of Director CIA, claimed that the virus had not originated in the wet market of Wuhan as originally believed but was essentially a bioweapon that had escaped from the lab. Cotton is a neocon. China in turn had blamed the Western media for blowing the coronavirus crisis out of proportion in order to stigmatise the country. This strand of dissatisfaction with the US media came to a head when a few days ago Chinese authorities expelled a few US journalists from the country.

What does it tell you? That success has many fathers and failure is an orphan? That the US-China “cold war” is beginning to heat up? That in these testing times and in an election year the US President has to bow to the wishes of his “base” and adopt a hawkish posture? That the hawks among the Chinese officials will pay back in kind? Actually, all of the above and more. If you have been paying heed to recent developments, the Chinese American community is reporting an uptick in incidents of intolerance directed at its members in the US. Similarly, articles are constantly appearing in the conservative pushing for the US-China decoupling.

President Trump’s frustration is understandable. It is true that he did not get a heads-up in time, was practically blindsided, and was forced to look either woefully oblivious or insensitive to the gravity of the situation. That, when coupled with the ongoing economic crisis, seems to weaken his hand in an election year. This much is true. But since the Chinese situation was unravelling on live television and the authorities there were struggling to contain the problem there is very little chance that the US official circles were ignorant of the scope of the problem. Was this information withheld from the US President then? It is hard to say because President Trump is known to attach little importance to the intelligence community’s presidential daily briefings. But the problem doesn’t stop here. In 2018, his administration had dismantled a key component of global health infrastructure left behind by the Obama administration, namely the pandemic directorate in the National Security Council which was supposed to act as an early warning system against such threats. Similarly, the Trump administration has been cutting down on its financial contributions to the UN, weakening the World Health Organization’s (WHO) ability to play its role proactively.

Now you can blame President Trump for most of this but that is not where the true blame lies. He won the 2016 elections capitalising on a widespread libertarian sentiment. The so-called Tea Party was a vocal advocate for a smaller government and even smaller government spending. One man who exploited this movement to his own end is former Breitbart executive Stephen Bannon. When he joined the Trump administration, he popularised the idea of the “deconstruction of the administrative state”. Mr Bannon, along with Senator Cotton and Erik Prince, the former head of erstwhile Blackwater and brother of Trump’s education secretary Betsy DeVos, represent a consortium of privateers who have been fighting to privatise America’s foreign, intelligence and defence policies for personal profit. They are aided by US politicians like Dana Rohrabacher and former speaker Newt Gingrich and various foreign countries ranging from India (particularly in Bannon’s case), Israel (Stephen Miller, another powerful White House employee watches over Benjamin Netanyahu’s interests) and the UAE (where Erik Prince now lives). And behind them all firmly stands Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News. In case you have not noticed, Mr Murdoch’s network has been setting the US agenda since the early days of Bush junior’s administration. Even when conservatives were out of power, Mr Murdoch, an Aussie known for his radical views on Muslims and China, found a way to force the Obama administration’s hand. He, like all above, is an Indophile.

So far President Trump’s economic performance has been his winning argument. However, as the markets tumble and the US prepares for another slowdown, partly because of the Covid-19 scare and partly because of the oil price war between two of his favourite nations — Russia and Saudi Arabia — this argument dims in an election year. Consequently, he is forced to rely on the malicious advice of the people who contributed to the current problem. But he does not need to. If the past decade belonged to right-wing libertarians, this one sees a leftward turn in the public sentiment. His years in power show he is singularly capable of rebuilding the economy, developing a working relationship with China and winning again in November with aplomb. He should shun the bad advice of the racist malcontent. The liberal media also needs to have mercy on itself and stop being used so brazenly. China also needs to avoid a collision. The world economy cannot afford a China-US decoupling.

Published in The Express Tribune, March 21st, 2020.

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