Authors: Illashree Singh and Utkarsh Dixit*
When the world is transiting through a phase of lockdowns and economic turmoil, a few days ago the WHO Director-General Tedros A. Ghebreyesus created turbulence across the globe while observing that “the worst is yet to come”. The entire world is within the clutches of the Covid- 19 pandemic which has infected more than 4.6 million people and has caused the death of around 3,06,000 people in 213 countries and 2 international conveyances. The Covid- 19 outbreak confronted the world with one of the first truly global threats of the 21st century. The Secretary-General of the United Nations Organisation Antonio Guterres termed it as “the gravest test since the founding of this organization”.
The Nuclear Threat Initiative, the Johns Hopkins Centre for Health Security and the Economist Intelligence Unit in October 2019 published a Global Health Security Index which stated that the United States is the most prepared nation to handle an epidemic or a pandemic in future. The US healthcare system is considered to be the best in the world, but despite that, the US has been worst affected by the Covid- 19 pandemic. The official figures states that around 1.43 million people have been affected by the Covid- 19 virus and around 87,000 people have lost their lives in the US alone. However, according to the New York Times, the US coronavirus death toll is far higher than officially reported.
Therefore, it becomes obligatory to raise a question that what went wrong that one-third of the total Covid-19 victims in the world are from the United States of America only?
A variety of factors can be held responsible like the desire for not letting the economy to halt, not grasping the severity of the situation, deep cracks in the strategy to prevent the virus from spreading, and most importantly the lackadaisical attitude and inability of the US President Donald Trump to recognize the warnings and shifting his focus in the killing of Iran’s security mastermind Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, or pushing for an initial trade deal with China, and his Senate impeachment trial, etc. while the Covid-19 virus was spreading its tentacles in the US.
The first covid-19 patient was reported in China in November 2019, and since the first week of January 2020 the World Health Organisation (WHO) has tried to warn every country about the spreading virus. On January 22, the Director-General of WHO said that “we have a window of opportunity to stop this virus. But that window is rapidly closing.” However, in the midst of trade deal negotiations with China, President Trump appreciated China on January 24 by tweeting that “China has been working very hard to contain the Coronavirus. The United States greatly appreciates their efforts and transparency.”
On the contrary, Dr. Carter Mecher, a Senior Medical Adviser at the Department of Veterans Affairs, US, in an email to a group of public health experts on January 28, urged the public health bureaucrats in the US to wake up and prepare for the possibility of far drastic action. The authorities repeatedly played down the seriousness of the virus and focused on other issues, even after it was alarmed by officers inside the government. According to Mr. Trump, the W.H.O. “fought” the United States after he put travel restrictions from China on January 31. Though WHO did not criticize the US, but the organisation has historically opposed border closings and travel bans during such outbreaks, as they never stop transmissible diseases and cause panic and widespread economic damage.
However, before the harshest criticism of President Trump’s inaction, he praised the efforts of WHO in a tweet on February 25 saying that, “the coronavirus is very much under control in the USA. We are in contact with everyone and all relevant countries. CDC & World Health have been working hard and very smart, Stock Market starting to look very good to me!”
But soon when the things started going off the rails, President Trump started spreading incorrect information, sowing false hope, re-inventing history, re-imagining science, boasting about his supposed heroism and martyrdom and savaging anyone who questions his infallibility.
President Trump started holding daily press conferences since March 9 which includes self-congratulations, audacious re-writing of the recent history in which he cast himself as the hero, and credit-taking which are often predicated on exaggerations and falsehoods. For the catastrophic situation in the US, except himself, he has put the blames on everyone including WHO, China, Democrats, Congressmen, Former President Barack Obama, administrative staff, Governors and the media etc.
Despite earlier appreciating the WHO, President Trump ordered his administration to halt the funding of WHO and again blamed the organization for this devastation by alleging that “so much death has been caused by their mistakes”. The biennial budget for the W.H.O. is about $6 billion, which comes from member countries around the world. In 2019, the United States contributed about $553 million. Later, UN Secretary-General António Guterres defended WHO and said that “it is also not the time to reduce the resources for the operations of the World Health Organization or any other humanitarian organization in the fight against the virus”.
In lieu of the upcoming Presidential Elections, the Trump administration is using the press conferences to promote their policies, occupying the television screens, fending off the critics and attacking the political rivals furiously. Therefore, in continuation of his modus operandi, US President recently signed an executive order to halt the issuing of green cards and suspending the entry of immigrants who present a risk to the US labour market during the economic recovery following the Covid-19 outbreak, which according to his critics, is precisely the kind of base-coddling measure that he resorts to when things feel out of control. On Friday, the Trump administration issued new rules barring Huawei, the Chinese telecommunications giant, and its suppliers from using U.S. technology. It can pe perceived that President Trump is making his contest with Beijing a theme of his re-election campaign.
A few days ago, President Trump again stunned the world by suggesting that doctors might treat people infected with the coronavirus by shining ultraviolet light inside their bodies, or with injections of household disinfectant. After the fierce criticism, he sought to play down his statement and defended himself that he was being “sarcastic”. His overconfidence, disdain for expert opinion and an obsession to stop the bad news from hitting the stock market, in order to portray a hunky-dory picture before the upcoming presidential elections in November 2020, made the crises worst in the US.
But despite his pufferies, as per the latest updates, more than 36 million workers have filed for unemployment in the last few weeks. Even next year, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) forecast calls for an unemployment rate averaging above 10%. According to the latest jobs report by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than 20 million Americans have lost their jobs in April alone, pushing the unemployment rate to 14.7%. However, as per Goldman Sachs, a higher unemployment rate of 25% for the month May can be predicted due to the pandemic.
Moreover, the US GDP fell at a 4.8% annual rate in the first quarter of the year; factually it is the first decline since 2014. Economists expect from the current quarter to show GDP contracting at an annual rate of 30% or more.
So the Trump administration needs to change its strategies otherwise it is going to have a long detrimental effect on life and economy of the US. Amidst the Covid-19 pandemic, the previous assertion of policies unleashed national interests, and more assertive dependency of world on China, the intensifying and dawdling dissatisfaction among governments with international organisations does not portend well for the future. The incredulous way of governments and inevitable global problems with long-term implications will not wither away. It can only be resolved through global cooperative efforts.
*The authors are lawyers at Supreme Court of India and Allahabad High Court