By Jeffrey D. Sachs
Updated 7:55 AM ET, Wed May 6, 2020
Jeffrey D. Sachs is a professor and director of the Center for Sustainable Development at Columbia University.
(CNN)The big lie of the Trump administration is that China is the cause of America's problems. The meme has worked for a while, since it plays into American smugness that if China is succeeding, they must be cheating.
Trump and his right-wing allies upped this game recently by claiming the Covid-19 pandemic was the result of an accidental release from a Chinese laboratory and that China's "cover up" blocked an effective global response.
According to CNN, the still-secret findings of the Five Eyes intelligence agencies (the US, UK, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada) pour cold water on this claim. So too does Trump's top infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci.
Yet just this past Sunday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo asserted, "There is a significant amount of evidence that this came from that laboratory in Wuhan."
Such charges by the Trump administration and by Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas are reckless and dangerous. They could push the world to conflict just as the Bush Administration's lies about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq pushed the US into war in 2003.
If the Trump administration's claims are shot down by the intelligence agencies and independent scientific analysis, as now seems likely, they recall the end of McCarthy era. Trump is our present-day Senator Joseph McCarthy, who uses lies and innuendos to scare Americans into submission. McCarthy's notorious lawyer, Roy Cohn, who himself was a pathological liar, was Trump's lawyer and mentor.
McCarthy knew no bounds to his lying, and eventually claimed that the US Army was soft on communists. The Army exposed McCarthy's lies, and in immortal words, the Army's lawyer Joseph Welch ended McCarthy's career. "Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness ... You have done enough. Have you no sense of decency?"
The right-wing charges against China made no sense. First, some on the US right charged that the coronavirus might have been a Chinese bio-weapon, a claim that was quickly shot down by scientists by analyzing the virus. Then they charged that the virus was accidentally released from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, with a subsequent cover-up. That too was illogical.
The virus was in circulation in Wuhan for weeks, and eventually killed thousands of Chinese people. In the confusion of the time, Wuhan authorities organized a major New Year's event on January 18 that spread the virus. Why would the Chinese authorities have done that if they knew, and were covering up, a laboratory release from several weeks earlier? The actual answer is almost surely that they were still in the fog of war against the new virus.
In fact, neither the biology nor chronology support the laboratory-release story. Biologists note that the Wuhan lab did not even have the Covid-19 virus under study. The virus is of a kind that originates in bats, but Covid-19 may have had an intermediate mammal host, perhaps one that was traded in the Wuhan live animal market implicated in a majority of the cases with onset before January 1, 2020. The Wuhan market was shut down on January 1 after the initial outbreak. Perhaps we will learn that the earliest human cases were not even in Wuhan at all and were brought to the Wuhan market by an infected individual traveling from Western China.
Aside from the claim of a laboratory release, the administration and the right-wing media also charge that China covered up the outbreak more generally for weeks. Yet consider the record. The doctors in Wuhan first noted unusual cases of viral pneumonia in mid-December. Wuhan health officials notified the World Health Organization office in China on December 31. The China health agency called the US CDC on January 3. The genome was fully sequenced and published online on January 11, and Wuhan was locked down on January 23.
Given the inevitable early confusion about a new disease that had never before been seen, that is a rapid timeline. Were there mistakes? On December 30, Dr. Li Wenliang sent fellow doctors a warning of a new an outbreak that resembled SARS. His brave warning was correct in essence even as the disease turned out to be a new one. Yet the Wuhan Public Security Bureau forced Dr. Li to sign a statement admitting to disturbing the public order.
Tragically, Dr. Li succumbed to the disease in February. In March he was exonerated by a national investigation. Also, the Chinese authorities waited until January 20 to declare definitively that the virus transmitted human to human. This too was a mistake, a tragic delay of several days that may have resulted from an incorrect and unrealistic hope that closing the Wuhan live animal markets would stop the disease, or from more general uncertainties, or a desire not to disrupt the start of the Chinese New Year.
But rather than acknowledging the general rapid timeline culminating in the shutdown on January 23, Trump has played fast and loose with the facts, hitting at China at every turn. But that has been par for the course in Trump's China bashing. For example, the administration has claimed repeatedly that Huawei and other high-tech Chinese companies are direct threats to US security, without providing any direct evidence. That's why America's closest allies such as the United Kingdom and Germany have gone in a different direction, continuing to do business with Huawei and to cooperate more generally with China.
The bottom line on the epidemic and Trump's dismal failure is this. On December 31, 2019, China notified WHO. On January 23, China locked down Wuhan. On January 30, WHO declared a global public health emergency.
As of January 30, there was not yet one single Covid-19 death in the United States. The first is now thought to have occurred on February 6.
Now there are more than 71,000 US deaths.
There was plenty of warning, Messrs. Trump and Pompeo. To this moment, Americans have not fully gauged your recklessness. You have done enough. Have you no shame?