Virus Pandemic Exercise Got One Thing Wrong: the U.S. Response

Last October, about 50 national security experts gathered in Washington to role-play a global response to a frightening scenario: a pandemic sparked by a mysterious new coronavirus ravages the world, hitting North Asia, Europe and the U.S. especially hard.

The exercise got a lot right about the pandemic now sweeping the globe. It concerned a virus that’s “highly transmissible via direct person-to-person contact,” overwhelms available resources and kills more than 3% of those infected, roughly equivalent to the current rate, with a workable vaccine trial many months away.

One thing it got badly wrong: Those involved — a mix of professors, international-relations theorists, intelligence experts and others — assumed the U.S. would lead the global response.

Even after almost three years living under President Donald Trump’s “America First” doctrine, few in the scenario predicted the U.S. would initially play down the threat, refuse for weeks to heed lessons learned by other nations struggling with the outbreak and treat institutions guiding the response — like the World Health Organization — with suspicion and scorn.

“What’s happening now is much worse in the sense that the U.S. response has been even more ineffective than we would have assumed,” said Sam Brannen, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ International Security Program, who helped lead the exercise. “The president undercutting his own officials and his messaging — I’m stunned by the scale of it.”

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The coronavirus pandemic is unlike any global crisis the modern world has seen, with millions of people going into isolation, millions more at risk of losing their jobs, stock markets posting the steepest declines in decades and health-care systems overwhelmed. The response is entirely different, too — instead of cooperating from the start, an environment of mistrust and disinformation has seen some countries not only closing borders to each other but trading accusations over how others have handled the crisis.

Trump has been criticized for downplaying the early warnings and treating outside advice with hostility until the virus got a foothold. What was also missing until recent days, according to experts, was a sense of a unified response by governments acting in concert to address a common threat.

Trump’s March 11 speech to the nation, in which he banned most travel from Europe, was a distillation of that: Rather than seeking to rally the world, he portrayed the U.S. as a victim of hostile outside forces, while his decision to impose the travel restrictions — called for by many senior health experts — was done without warning or regard for allies, who were caught blindsided.

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“Usually, when we see a global crisis like this you would expect there to be more international cooperation, more collaboration,” said Yanzhong Huang, director of the Center for Global Health Studies at Seton Hall University in New Jersey. “That kind of spirit of collaboration I found was shockingly lacking in the current Covid-19 outbreak.”

The president’s approach stems in part from a distrust of multilateral institutions that’s seen Trump try to slash funding to the United Nations and its agencies. During this pandemic, his ire and distrust have also been directed at the WHO, which some administration officials regard as moving too slowly, even though it has consistently urged the U.S. to do more to fight the virus.

After playing down the threat for weeks, Trump got serious this week. On Monday he advised Americans against gathering in groups of more than 10 people and said they should stop eating out at restaurants and going to bars. Travel restrictions along the U.S.-Canada border were coordinated with Ottawa, a sharp contrast with the move against Europe.

Central banks around the world have stepped up their response as well, slashing rates, boosting purchases of government bonds and vowing to use all the power in their monetary arsenal to ameliorate the economic slowdown in an echo of the 2008 financial crisis.

And the U.S. president’s tone has become far more sober, even as he’s disputed the notion that he didn’t take the outbreak seriously from the start.

“It’s bad,” Trump said at a March 16 briefing. “We’re going to hopefully be a best case and not a worst case.”

Shortly before that news conference, Group of Seven leaders including Trump held a teleconference — more than two months after the virus first appeared — pledging to do “whatever is necessary to ensure a strong global response through closer cooperation and enhanced coordination of our efforts.”

Trump’s belated acknowledgment of the outbreak’s severity coincided with orders from U.S. cities and other governments, including Canada’s, to take similarly unprecedented steps aimed at “social distancing.” The U.S. Agency for International Development is also quietly preparing to spend more than $800 million to help poorer countries confront the crisis.

Kori Schake, the director of foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, said it’s hard to build the trust necessary for a rapid response in the middle of a crisis. “I hope that the pandemic we’re experiencing reminds Americans, including the Trump administration, how valuable sustaining international cooperation is,” she said.

China’s Role

The global leadership vacuum is one that China has sought to fill, with state media and well-known figures highlighting their nation’s efforts to help the rest of the world. But the country faces increasing criticism that it tried to downplay the scale of the crisis within its own borders, ultimately worsening the pandemic, and is now trying to rewrite that history.

Over the last several days, Xinhua broadcast images of Chinese doctors traveling as far afield as Iraq to help with the coronavirus. It’s a message that’s gaining currency in some parts of Europe. On Monday, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, who has long had a tense relationship with the rest of Europe, pleaded for China’s help.

”The only country that can help us is China,” Vucic said. “I believe in my brother and friend Xi Jinping, and I believe in Chinese help.”

The lack of global leadership has been accompanied by vigorous finger-pointing among nations looking to shift blame for the virus’s spread, including between the U.S. and Europe over Trump’s abrupt decision to ban travel, and with China, whose senior diplomats have spread the spurious claim that the virus was invented in a U.S. lab, when human transmission was first detected in the Chinese city of Wuhan.

Chinese officials, meanwhile, have assailed Trump for calling it the “China virus” and Secretary of State Michael Pompeo for naming it the “Wuhan Virus.”

“Some U.S. politicians are using coronavirus as a weapon to smear China and spread their ‘political virus’ at will,” Xinhua said in a tweet.

Trump told reporters on Wednesday that “it’s not racist at all” because “it comes from China” and Xi’s government “could have given us a lot earlier notice.”

The government-to-government bickering, and the patchwork initial response, is what has flummoxed many of the people who had prepared for a pandemic response. Instead of offering to ramp up production of ventilators for the world, for example, Trump told states they should try first to get the hardware on their own. Rather than distributing test kits globally, the U.S. was caught behind in testing its own citizens.

“There’s no reassurance domestically or internationally coming out of this White House,” said Brannen of CSIS. “It’s always a step behind or a day late.”

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