BEFORE THE VIRUS

It’s Monday, April 13, 2020.

It’s the 150th anniversary of the establishment of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The actual building – the one on Fifth Avenue – wouldn’t open until four years later.

If it were open, the exhibits that would most interest my family would be three related to its Chinese heritage – Celebrating the Year of the Rat, Children to Immortals: Figural Representations in Chinese Art and Chinese Painting and Calligraphy Up Close. 

The links are the best we’re going to do for now. If you want to mark this day by visiting the museum, here’s the home page: https://www.metmuseum.org/

Art museums – like ballparks and jazz clubs and 5k races and whatever mass events excite you – seem to be the stuff of dreams right now.

Sunday’s New York Times article detailing Trump’s failings in handling the biggest crisis of our lifetime is shocking to be sure – but it probably doesn’t surprise anyone who understands what happened.

And while all the failings that occurred since all those Met exhibits I flagged above are significant and heinous, what Trump did before the pandemic are the real problem.

For three and a-half years, it’s been Trump’s passion to disrupt the American way of dealing with the world. 

It could be because he perceives that government regulations – and not his own bad judgment – impeded his path to becoming the wealthiest man in America. Or it could be because he generally hates people who don’t kiss his rear end – particularly those of different shades from whatever is under that orange glop on his face.

Particularly Barack Obama.

So there are two things that happened before anyone got sick in Wuhan that exacerbated this crisis.

One is the trade war with China.

Remember that?

Trump and his minions have complained loudly about China’s rise as a world economy, much of it coming at the expense of the United States. China has been accused of manipulating currency and sucker punching previous administrations – especially Obama’s – in trade.

So Trump relied on tariffs to bring China to heel.

When my wife were in China last summer, we tried to avoid politics. We were there to do research for my wife’s memoir about her father.

But when politics did come up, it invariably turned to the trade war. China is a country building quickly – the number of high-rise buildings under construction boggles the mind – and its people accept the idea they get a higher standard of living.

A trade war with the U.S. gets in the way of that. It’s scary.

And with Trump, the idea is to throw people off balance. Your daily news would be like we’re negotiating, we’re close to a deal, we’re gonna sign it today, we’re walking away because it’s not good enough. Repeat.

It’s hard to trust someone so bewilderingly unstable.

Add to that the fact China is cursed with an almost equally self-centered leader at the wrong time in history. 

Xi Jinping is not quite as full of himself as Trump. But he made sure his picture is all over China and that he’ll serve as president beyond the constitutional limit – something Trump must think about. 

And, like Trump, he’s about image. That crippled China’s initial response to the Wuhan outbreak and what the rest of the world would know about it.

So, when there was an outbreak in Wuhan, there was almost no chance what was needed to happen would.

Do you remember the death and hardship of the first COVID pandemic in 2003?

There’s a reason you don’t. It was kept to a minimum.

That’s because the United States, working with China and other nations, came together to stymie a disaster when the virus broke out in Guangdong Province.

According to a 2004 study in the journal Nature written by doctors at UCLA, the outbreak was limited to 29 countries. There were 8,422 cases worldwide – as of now, there are 1.87 million COVID-19 cases – and the death toll was 916, a number overwhelmed just by New York City alone this time aroubnd.

The president in 2003 was George W. Bush – previously thought to be neck-and-neck with James Buchanan and Andrew Johnson for the low water mark for American leaders.

And while there’s no forgiving the Iraq debacle, the fact is Bush’s word was respected enough throughout the world that there could be a united front to prevent deaths everywhere.

That’s the second point I want to make. 

Trump’s word is worthless.

China didn’t trust him enough to let the U.S. assist it in handling this crisis – as it trusted Bush in 2003. 

The rest of the world didn’t trust him enough to join the U.S. in a coordinated effort to stop the virus from traveling all over.

American political leaders didn’t trust him enough to join in a coordinated federal-state-local effort. Why would Nancy Pelosi or Gavin Newsom believe Trump when he constantly denigrates them in petulant tweets or by snubbing them in public?

Most of all, how do you trust someone who lies about something as obvious as the way he tried to manipulate Ukraine into investigating the Bidens? When he provided the evidence himself in his “transcript” of the “perfect” phone call with the Ukrainian president?

The fight picking. The bridge burning. The dumb tactics. The cruelty. The inappropriate tweets. The self-centered, self-congratulatory behavior. The utter lack of compassion.

The lying. The constant, round-the-clock, blatant, mind-numbing, toddlerish lying.

Trump and his sycophants want to blame China for this crisis. And China – under its own over-indulged leader who tried to cover up a health calamity – certainly bears some responsibility for this global catastrophe.

But before he didn’t do all the things the Times said he didn’t do, Trump did things that made the world ripe for this tragedy.

He’s not merely to blame for so many of the 22,000 U.S. deaths in this crisis. He shares responsibility for the nearly 118,000 deaths around the world.

By the way, this nonsense about calling it a Chinese virus is nauseating.

Most recently, Bill Maher went off on this idea during his HBO show Friday night, complaining about those complaining about the effort to label this pandemic.

Why does it freaking matter where this thing started? Why does it need to be pinned on the Chinese people as if they wanted it in order to share misery with the world?

Early cooperation between the United States and China wouldn’t have completely stopped this pandemic. But it sure would have been a lot less awful. 

But China didn’t trust Trump and Trump kept trying to play China. The world paid the price.

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