Former Seattle Mariners’ starter, Ariel Miranda gave up the first homerun of the season in a 4-1 loss over the weekend. While we sit here locked in our homes, still waiting for our federal government to form a plan, baseball season started Sunday in Taiwan. Exhibition games start in a couple of weeks in South Korea and Japan.
A divide has opened in the developed world between nations in the US sphere of influence and those who look to China or Japan for leadership. Countries that are shedding their dependence on US influence are back to work, recovering from the pandemic, with little infection and few deaths. Meanwhile, Europe is reeling.
It’s no surprise that the US, under Trump’s leadership, is faring about as well as all his previous ventures, but why has the pandemic hit Europe so hard? They didn’t elect an idiot, they have excellent systems of universal health insurance, mostly-competent political leadership and a willingness to place science above ideology.
In the COVID-19 pandemic, Europeans are paying with their lives for their dependence on the United States. Thirty years after the end of the Cold War, Europe continues to lean on the US not only for its military security, but for leadership on a wide spectrum of issues that demand high levels of investment and sophisticated infrastructure. That model was premised on an assumption that US institutions would be consistently more capable and reliable than, say Portugal or France, and certainly more dependable than aid they might receive from Russia or China. That assumption was true until it wasn’t. Trump and COVID-19 may be the 1-2 punch that neutralizes the North Atlantic alliance.
If you’re making decisions for a European nation, who do you turn to for guidance on a complex matter like pandemic response? Where do you get the expert insight you need to decide whether to close off travel to a certain part of the world, ramp up health resources to prepare for a threat, or secure vital supplies? Each country, along with the EU itself, has access to highly qualified experts, but they depend on the US for the wide-ranging infrastructure needed to respond to a global crisis.
On matters that require massive scientific or infrastructure investment, Europe’s leaders still look to the US. There is no equivalent of the US CDC in Europe. Germany’s DZIF is the nearest thing they have, but it functions more like America’s National Science Foundation, a clearing house for research funding and organization. Germany’s DZIF enjoys an annual budget of about $50 million, compared to $11 billion for the CDC.
Which government has the budgetary, scientific, and logistical resources necessary to respond to a pandemic outbreak anywhere in the world? Until the Trump Era there was only one, the United States, and European governments had learned to bet their security on American power. That bet had paid off for generations.
Though scientists and researchers from all over the planet played vital roles, it was American leadership and, most importantly, American infrastructure and money, that (eventually) tamed the AIDS crisis and contained wave after wave of pandemic outbreaks in recent years, from SARS to Ebola.
The WHO acts a global mouthpiece for critical health information while maintaining a limited global response capability. Its annual budget is less than a quarter of America’s CDC, and half of that money comes from the US government or the Gates family. Nobody in the world is waiting for guidance from the WHO to make crucial decisions in a pandemic. Up until this disaster, the WHO was another arm of a global response infrastructure led by the United States. When leaders around the world were looking for guidance on pandemic response, they looked to the White House, until now.
As news emerged early this year of a pandemic in China, Pacific-rim countries didn’t wait for American leadership. Europe did. Excluding China, whose numbers are suspect, COVID-19 deaths across every Pacific rim country from South Korea to Singapore total less than 5% of Italy’s death toll total.
When do you initiate a lockdown? What should you do about limiting air and rail travel? Should schools stay open? Where should you look for help securing supplies or gaining access to testing infrastructure? No one is in a hurry to admit it, but European governments are used to looking to America’s CDC and the US government for answers to these kinds of questions. When Europe needed our leadership, our President was ignoring intelligence reports, lying about our planned response, and golfing.
Italy moved much faster than the US in responding to their outbreak, but just as in the US, their response was too little too late. Italy detected its first case on January 31, almost two weeks after the US. They shut down travel from China that same day, a step the US still hasn’t taken. Italy imposed a regional lockdown on February 23 three weeks before San Francisco took a similar measure. They locked down the whole country on March 8. All of these steps were ahead of any US guidance, and ahead of US responses, and still weeks too late to prevent a calamity. Without US leadership, which under any competent administration would have emerged by the second week in January, there was no comprehensive infrastructure for testing and tracing, the critical first steps in pandemic response initiated early by Pacific rim countries.
Taiwan has a population just a bit smaller than Texas, all packed onto a narrow island that could fit between Dallas and Houston. They detected their first COVID-19 case on January 21, just a day after the US. They’ve logged fewer than 400 total cases, with only 6 deaths. South Korea, hit hard initially thanks to the bizarre antics of a religious cult, now sees only a few dozen new cases a day and a handful of deaths.
With millions of people crammed into a tiny island, Singapore has had a total of 10 deaths. Hong Kong, four. Lockdowns there have been brief and limited. Economic life has mostly continued as normal. Throughout the crisis, you could go to a restaurant or market in Seoul or Tokyo with minimal disruption. Pacific rim countries which have shaken free of American leadership have barely been touched by this disaster. Their biggest ongoing threat is reinfection by travelers from those dysfunctional “shit-hole” countries in the US sphere of influence.
Italy and Spain are still seeing thousands of new cases and hundreds of deaths a day. Though a few European countries, like Germany, are weathering the storm with relatively few casualties, none have escaped the need for wide-ranging quarantines that have shut down economic activity.
There is an established playbook for pandemic response, a playbook developed over generations and refined by the American Centers for Disease Control. Governments around the globe faced no mysteries in their response to what should have been a routine, step-by-step response. What was missing in the west was leadership. Europe looked to the US for that leadership while developed nations in the Pacific ignored us. As many as 100,000 Europeans or more may die because Americans thought it might be cute to elect a racist TV star.
Among the casualties from this unnecessary disaster will be the myth of American leadership. While Asian countries start baseball season and ramp up their economies, America’s allies are piling bodies into trucks, converting ice rinks into makeshift morgues, and resorting to drive-through funerals. Our allies are unlikely to forget the price they paid for trusting us to lead the world.