If the world had never been more empowered and connected as we entered 2020, from the freedoms and benefits of globalisation to the immersive and rapidly advancing digital technologies that enabled our social constructs, then it had also not been as divided for a great many years as proliferating pockets of extremism were in play around the world.
By the end of 2019, the world was in a heightened period of political polarisation, seemingly the culmination of a cycle of extremities in both political sciences and cultural attitudes that had been bubbling under the surface for a decade prior.
In or out. Leave or remain. Democracy or dictatorship. Trade and trust, or paranoia and protectionism. Liberal left or hard right. These were just a handful of the political battlegrounds being fought across the globe.
It’s a cycle we largely remain in today, still simmering just under the surface after a year of change and relative cohesion – finally – behind a new collective enemy in the shape of Covid. The question is, however, could this cycle in our societal and political history have left doors ajar – if not wide open – in early 2020 to the prospect of a pandemic arising in the background?
Interpretations of the political world in 2019 and early 2020 depend on one’s leanings or political persuasions, but there’s little doubt that the calm and considered observer would recognise strong traits of nationalism and protectionism in the policy of many significant leaders at the very least. This could be seen as a deviation from the previous script of globalisation which had been more prevalent in previous decades.
Rather than a period of relative stability, this was a time of extremism and divisiveness. A time of uncertainty and the sense of short-term rule that can naturally engender. There were elections and re-elections to be fought, confidences to be won, in countries across the globe. From battles on the backbenches to succession in the senate and the biggest prizes of all on the frontline of world leadership, power struggles and political wars were waging.
As we explored earlier in this series (Chapter 1. How did we get here? The emergence of a virus), across the UK the year (2019) may have concluded with clarity around Brexit and with Parliament voting overwhelmingly to formally exit the EU by 31st January (2021), but it had been yet another tumultuous 12 months of societal and political struggle to get there and with clear divisions in opinion still existing across the constituent countries. Likewise, for all those countries still actively participating in the EU and pro-union, the debacle had undoubtedly been both a distracting, resource-intensive and unedifying experience in 2019.
Across the Atlantic, an equally distasteful political spectacle was unfolding in the US. Whilst President Donald Trump had made international history on 30th June when he became the first setting US president to set foot in North Korea, engaging in a meeting in the Demilitarised Zone for potentially groundbreaking nuclear (warhead) talks between the two countries, those same talks appeared to stall soon after. Less constructive rhetoric resumed across high-profile social media channels in the days and weeks thereafter, at a time when the Trump Administration was also deeply embroiled in terse trade tariffs and political stand-offs with another perceived ‘threat’ in the Asia-Pacific region – China.
Against this backdrop and with the US election year pending in 2020 and, some would argue, a campaign to more than besmirch the outspoken Republican president, an anonymous whistleblower alleged in August 2019 that Trump had used the powers of his office to pressure Ukraine into investigating Democratic frontrunner Joe Biden and his son in a call on 25th July. A political storm that deepened Democratic and Republican divisions, by 24th September it had progressed to a formal impeachment probe. The House voted on 31st October to hold public hearings; those hearings opened in mid-November; and by 18th December, the House had voted along party lines to approve two articles of impeachment against the sitting president.
As already alluded to, there were also the distractions of growing trade wars and proxy wars in progress (think the US-Iran conflict, the Saudi oil refinery attacks), as well as pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, political protests in Algeria and Iraq, and inequality protests in Chile. With such power plays in place the world over, one might ask if it was any wonder there seemed a lack of cohesion and coordination in our collective response to the outbreak of Covid-19.
Amidst the ideologies still forming, egos being exercised and party lines being redrawn, the needle of political compasses continued to fluctuate through 2019/20.
Here we examine four key countries with significant common ground in the run-up to this pandemic, in the early stages of its onset and during its various waves: Brazil, India, the UK and US. Each had at one time been an epicentre or crisis-stricken region at the hands of Covid-19; each also had its own high-profile political collateral to consider before, during and after. Each of these countries also remains prominent in the unwanted list of high Covid caseloads and fatalities.
There’s an interesting juxtaposition behind their selection for this examination too. On the one hand, two of these countries are established economies and forces within the world, widely regarded as leaders in the global stage and in their own rights, home to highly developed healthcare infrastructure. They all also sit within the northern hemisphere. On the other hand, we have two nations in the southern hemisphere that are less developed, with modest healthcare networks and either still emerging on the global stage or some way off it, economically speaking.
Of each, we will attempt to question:
- Were there stoked tensions that hindered disaster prevention?
- Was the country politically preoccupied?
- Was the onset and response to Covid-19 used as a political tool?
We will also look to the confirmed caseloads and deaths data for each country to add further perspective to this analysis.
At the time that the first reported cases of Covid-19 were about to emerge, Brazil was understood to be in a better state than it had been in the years prior.
The country was in the midst of a clean bill of reforms to its economy, fiscal policy, infrastructure and governance. Whilst seen as a divisive figure for some, President Jair Bolsonaro was presiding over a period of declining political risk in the country after decades of turbulent events.
According to an article from project finance and infrastructure journal IJ Global, published on 26th November, “A slate of reforms is underway to clean up its act, but will these reforms engender investor confidence and transparency after decades of political tumult? Brazil’s need for infrastructure investments over the next 20 years is estimated at $1.3 trillion across all market segments from schools through to roads, hospitals and logistics. The size of its infrastructure needs can only be met by inspiring investor confidence that these reforms provide a stable country for growth with genuine transparency.” 45
There had been reports that such needs in inspiring investor confidence were not necessarily being met. A July 2019 article from Reuters, the result of a poll of analysts, described how ongoing political uncertainty in Brazil was expected to cloud the outlook for its economy. It explained that, according to the economists polled, prolongation of the tense climate sparked by an initiative to reform the country’s generous retirement system threatens to keep business confidence and investment subdued next year (2020)46.
Nonetheless, Brazil was in the midst of an upswing in its economic position and outlook at the moment that Covid-19 began to impact the country, as it continued to recover from its 2014-2016 recession. This is reflected in a World Bank country profile, which states, “The Covid-19 pandemic exposed Brazil to an unprecedented health and economic challenge. To contain the pandemic, Brazil implemented social measures to slow the spread of the virus and contain its impact on the health system capacity, which is uneven across the country. Covid-19 hit as Brazil was still recovering from its 2014-16 recession. Economic recovery remained weak and fiscal policy space limited since the peak of the recession in 2015-2016, with GDP growth below 2% in the following years.” 47
An interesting point made here is the ‘uneven’ healthcare capacity across the country, a description which might arguably be made of social measures and general infrastructure.
At the time of the onset of Covid-19, then, Brazil was a picture of political preoccupation: in the midst of major structural and economic reforms, determined to restore its economic outlook and under the relatively infant administration of Bolsonaro.
What followed was a much-maligned response to the pandemic, a resolute and high-profile state of denial where the existence and threat of coronavirus was concerned in the eyes and the public rhetoric of the country’s leader.
Indeed, President Bolsonaro had been widely quoted in the media as saying in a televised address in late March, “It’s just a little flu or the sniffles,” and suggesting that the media had been creating hysteria over Covid.
A few days later, he clearly demonstrated his prioritisation of the economy over isolation measures favoured by the rest of the world, reports the BBC. “People are going to die, I’m sorry,” he is reported to have said. “But we can’t stop a car factory because there are traffic accidents.”48
Such a stance continued for a sustained period after, naturally drawing the world’s attention as Brazil began to succumb spectacularly to the pandemic and yet, its leader upheld a public denial of the seriousness of the virus and reportedly dispensed with the services of various health ministers in the process.
According to data on confirmed cases and fatalities from coronavirus from the Covid-19 Dashboard by the Center for Systems Science and Engineering (CSSE) at John Hopkins University (JHU)49, updated on 08/06/2021, Brazil was third on the list of hard-hit countries at the hands of the pandemic, with almost 17 million confirmed cases (16,984,218) and 474,414 fatalities. That figure is much higher than the death toll in India, despite far fewer confirmed cases. It also contrasts with an expenditure on healthcare of 9.51% of GDP in 2018 according to data on health expenditure from the World Bank, citing the WHO Global health Expenditure Database50 – almost triple that of India.
Since then, Brazil has rapidly gone onto record more than 500,000 fatalities at the hands of Covid, a grim milestone for any country during this pandemic.
It became apparent in the most high-profile and distressing of scenes that the country was simply not ready, not equipped to deal with such a ferocious pandemic. As reported by gasworld on a number of occasions, large swathes of Brazil were not prepared for the required medical oxygen demand and related treatments.
Indeed on 17th January, gasworld reported that hospitals in the Brazilian city of Manaus had reached ‘breaking point’ in their treatment of growing numbers of Covid-19 patients, as oxygen shortages take hold in the region51. The city, with a population of 2.1 million inhabitants, in Amazonas state and around 3,900km North of the city of Sao Paulo, was understood to be experiencing a surge in both infections and fatalities and at the mercy of dwindling oxygen supply. gasworld understood from its sources in the region that there were already local reports about shortages in distant cities in the north of Brazil and in the state of Amazonas in the months leading up to this new crisis in Manaus.
According to sources, demand for medical oxygen increased five-fold during that week in January, and several state hospitals had either reduced oxygen stock, or in some cases had no oxygen at all.
In an exclusive interview for gasworld published on 1st February, two weeks since Manaus had hit the headlines globally for its tragic scenes of Covid casualties and dire oxygen shortages, Newton de Oliveira – President of Sao Paulo-based IBG (Industria Brasileira de Gases Ltda) – said such scenes in Manaus could have been prevented had there been more planning by the sector and the Government alike. Further still, he cited a lack of local communication prior to the crisis and the belief that similar crises could yet engulf other regions of Brazil if the same mistakes continue to be made and logistical challenges are not adequately overcome.
IBG provided one of the ISO containers with liquid oxygen that was sent to Manuas as part of the emergency efforts, as well as around 2,000 medical oxygen cylinders, and de Oliveira said, “The situation in the health system in Amazon State is critical, caused by the lack of oxygen to treat the Covid-19 disease. It was a surprise for all of us that operate in the Brazilian market.”52
“IBG has no activities or facilities in that area; we have installations in 10 states but nothing in Amazonas State. There is no exchange of information between gas companies in Brazil due the antitrust rules. The Manaus location is essentially an island in the middle of forest that is difficult to be accessed by river or road.”
“We are facing a chaotic situation in different areas of Brazil, but Manaus is critical because of its location. Many people are dying. People are suffering due to the lack of planning. We are trying to save lives.”
With regard to this latter point made, concerning ‘planning’ or a lack of, it can of course be argued that it was not possible to plan for Covid itself; rather, it is a lack of infrastructure – physical, administrative and political – to react rapidly to such a situation of emergency.
By 22nd March (2021), gasworld reported that concerns with medical oxygen had only deepened in the country, as the Brazilian hospital system came under ‘serious stress’. Author Eduardo Pelitti, on the ground in South America, described how Brazil is entering into a critical situation in fighting the virus and its second wave – and the new virus variants like that which originated in Manaus53.
The week prior, a new Minister of Health had appointed by President Jair Bolsonaro, the fourth in a 12-month period. The new minister, Marcelo Queiroga, a cardiologist, replaced General Pazuello, a military general, in activity brought after the departure of the two previous Health ministers which left office.
In the same week, after industrial gases companies and the Brazilian Chemical Chamber (Abiquim) alerted the Ministry of Health and other high rank members of the Federal Government about their concerns with the situation of oxygen supplies, especially in Central West states like Acre and Rondonia, local municipal authorities were also sending alerts in other states like Santa Catarina, in southern Brazil, where the virus spread accelerated.
At the time of the article, several states were reporting 100% occupancy rates of intensive care units (UCIs), and in some cases local authorities complain about critical stock levels of medical oxygen, medicines and supplies required to face the increasing number of patients. It continued to explain that on 12th March, Anvisa, the Brazilian regulating agency for medical products, had issued a resolution requiring oxygen producers to report their production and distribution capacity on a weekly basis, in order to be able to anticipate any possible shortages, like those in the city of Manaus (Amazonia state) in mid-January 2021.
But was it all simply too late?
Had Brazil managed its borders quickly and appropriately enough in the first instance? Did its political regime at the time take this pandemic seriously and act accordingly? Or did its administration, in its attempts to show strength and continue to resurrect its embattled economy, simply misjudge the balancing act to be struck, at the expense of many of the lives of its citizens? Evidently, if nothing else, the oxygen supply chain in the region was not prepared for such a scenario as that which unfolded, to devastating effect.
A congressional inquiry into Brazil’s response to the coronavirus pandemic has since been launched, in April 2021, scrutinising the government’s handling of the public health crisis and the political decision-making that led to the aforementioned milestone of more than half a million deaths.
One of the biggest developments in India in 2019, politically and otherwise, was the somewhat unexpected landslide election victory of Prime Minister, Narendra Modi.
Unexpected because, whilst Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata party (BJP) may have been expected to form a majority coalition with smaller allies, it had not expected to secure such an outright majority in its own right. The victory was seen as underscoring the popularity of ‘Master Modi’ himself, as well as the movement of nationalism at play across the country and the significance of an intensive campaign trail at the ballots.
It continued a reign in power for Modi of many years, having been Prime Minister since 2014, and a feeling of settlement and assurance for the country. Indeed, Modi had himself said on social media as the result poured in, “Together we grow. Together we prosper…” Such stability was considered an attractive investment opportunity for the international community, and India would go onto also stably handle its initial response to the Covid-19 pandemic, arguably better than expected by many.
Tekno Valves’ Rohit Behani reflected in a column for gasworld on 29th April 2021, “With India kicking off the world’s most extensive vaccination programme on 16th January 2021 and the total number of active Covid-19 cases around 150,000 and daily cases just over 10,000, the mood was upbeat. Life was slowly but surely coming back to normal.”
“India had surprised the rest of the world with how it had handled the pandemic and won hearts worldwide by supplying 66 million vaccines to 95 countries around the world.”54
However, by the end of the first quarter of 2021, the wheels had come off spectacularly in India, as a lethal second wave of coronavirus ripped through the country and its ailing healthcare system alike. If the elections of 2019 had been widely described as a ‘contest for the soul of India’ given the two opposing ideologies being pitted against each other, then it’s fair to say a cruel window into the country’s soul was wide open in April and May 2021 in particular as harrowing scenes of distress and death were broadcast to the world. The Delta variant of Covid-19 was in the ascendency and oxygen supply chains were at breaking point.
“It was suggested after the first wave that only about 5% (much less than the earlier predicted figure of 15%) of patients infected by Covid-19 needed medical oxygen support. Therefore, oxygen supply to Covid-19 patients after the initial few months was not considered a challenge,” Behani explained in his column. “And then, like a bolt from the blue, the second covid wave hit India from Mid-March 2021. However, oxygen availability, or lack of it, only became news after a month when daily Covid-19 cases exceeded 200,000 per day.”
“It would be fair to say that pandemic fatigue had also kicked in, and social distancing was the first casualty. The second cricket test match, India vs England, in Chennai started on 13th February, with the authorities allowing 50% stadium capacity.”
”However, at Tekno Valves we only started witnessing unprecedented demand for medical oxygen valves from 19th April, and have been completely swept off our feet since then.”
Had India and its administration taken its eye off the ball? Had it eased up too many restrictions at once, allowing religious festivities and election activities to take place without the required caution? Did the combination of international sports events and a campaign and balloting trail in the country allow the spread of Covid-19 to go unchecked?
These are all valid questions, the answers to which will not be given here. What we can demonstrate, however, is that the country was evidently not ready for the relentless spread of Covid that followed. It fast became arguably the biggest and most visceral example globally of a healthcare system, vaccination programme and oxygen supply chain that simply wasn’t pandemic-prepared.
Data on confirmed cases and fatalities from coronavirus from the Covid-19 Dashboard by the Center for Systems Science and Engineering (CSSE) at John Hopkins University (JHU)55, updated on 08/06/2021, demonstrated that India was at that time second only to the US in terms of confirmed cases of Covid-19 (28, 996,473). Deaths from the virus stood at 351,309. A further point to note here, as alluded to by Behani, is that the vast majority of these figures were sustained in early 2021, during that lethal second wave of the virus and the rise of the Delta variant.
When looking at the picture of the oxygen supply chain, having been praised for its handling of this network during the first wave of Covid in 2020, the flaws in access to oxygen for all were deeply exposed one year later.
It was on 8th April 2020 that gasworld reported how the Government of India had granted permission for manufacturers of industrial oxygen to manufacture and sell the gas for medical use, as the country continued to anticipate an escalation in its cases of coronavirus and resulting hospital admissions56. The proposal was understood to have been put forward by the All India Industrial Gases Manufacturer’s Association (AIIGMA), to ensure the availability and supply of oxygen for medical use across the country.
The grant was issued by the Directorate General of Health Services (Government of India) and essentially enabled all manufacturers of industrial oxygen in the country to obtain a license to sell the product for medical use within 24 hours of their application being received. It was thought that the grant could prove to be something of a breakthrough development for many other countries to follow suit, as they battled to maintained adequate oxygen supply in the face of mounting health crises at the hands of Covid-19.
India was, then, taking something of a lead in its balancing and deployment of the supply chain. One year later, on 19th April and in the midst of its worsening second wave, gasworld reported57 that the country was again striving to manage this supply chain, with new restrictions to be implemented to manage the application of oxygen supply and prioritise its use for medical purposes. Several states across India were flagging oxygen shortages as Covid cases surged, with the government announcing that oxygen supply would be restricted to just nine industries from 22nd April. In essence, the order of the day was essential industrial use only, with medical oxygen provision the priority.
Yet it was largely in vain. Within days, such measures were simply not enough to meet uncontrollable demand and stem the tide of unnecessary deaths. On 23rd April, as India continued to grapple with an escalating oxygen crisis, the country publicly turned to the international industrial gas community for urgent help.
gasworld reported that the Indian High Commissions across the Middle East, Europe and Asia were all approaching gas companies and gas associations for help58. According to Saket Tiku – President of the All Indian Industrial Gas Manufacturers Association (AIIGMA) – the demand for medical oxygen in India increased from the norm of 800 tonnes per day (tpd) to 3,000 tpd in the first pandemic spike, but in the second and still-climbing wave that figure had doubled to 6,000 tpd.
Tiku had for the past nine months been co-opted onto a special committee set up by Prime Minister Modi. Conditions had worsened and gasworld understood that the Indian Government had issued a tender for 50,000 tonnes of medical liquid oxygen, a tender open to the international community as well as those within India.
One of the countries quick to respond to India’s plight had been the UK, with public and private sector support announced in the hours, days and weeks thereafter. And yet, the UK had arguably not completely navigated its way out of crisis with Covid-19 itself.
It would not be an exaggeration to describe the political scene across the UK as a tinder box of tension prior to the onset of the pandemic. As described earlier in this article, 2019 may have concluded with clarity around Brexit and the decision to formally exit the EU by 31st January (2021), but it had been yet another tumultuous 12 months of societal and political struggle to get there.
The culmination of that had been the general election of 12th December 2019, overwhelmingly won by Prime Minister Boris Johnson and the Conservative Party. As 2020 began to unfold, however, there was still not a completely cohesive and stable feeling to UK politics. The substance and ultimate benefits of Brexit still created confusion and division; murmurs of a further independence referendum continued to emanate from Scotland; and despite a landslide election victory, questions remained over the leadership and even the style of the Johnson administration.
Prime Minister Johnson was on a new campaign trail in early 2020, a drive to reinforce support for Brexit and the rhetoric around the power of a bold new Britain. Was that proving a preoccupation in UK politics, at a time when a new and deadly public health threat was evidently emerging across the world from east to west?
In a speech from Prime Minister Johnson in Greenwich on 3rd February59, accessed at gov.uk archives, he described the settlement of a ‘long-running question of sovereign authority’ and the ‘newly recaptured powers’ as a result of Brexit. As his address moved to the subject of world trade and Britain’s readiness for its key role on the future world stage, there was an apparently nonchalant reference to the rise of coronavirus.
“And in that context, we are starting to hear some bizarre autarkic rhetoric, when barriers are going up, and when there is a risk that new diseases such as coronavirus will trigger a panic and a desire for market segregation that go beyond what is medically rational to the point of doing real and unnecessary economic damage, then at that moment humanity needs some government somewhere that is willing at least to make the case powerfully for freedom of exchange, some country ready to take off its Clark Kent spectacles and leap into the phone booth and emerge with its cloak flowing as the supercharged champion, of the right of the populations of the earth to buy and sell freely among each other.”
Just weeks later, in an address to the nation on 12th March and flanked by scientific advisors, Johnson underscored the very real danger that Covid-19 posed, but assured that the Government had a more than adequate plan in place to deal with that threat. “And it’s clear that coronavirus, Covid-19, continues and will continue to spread across the world and our country over the next few months. We’ve done what can be done to contain this disease and this has bought us valuable time. But it is now a global pandemic,” he said60.
“And the number of cases will rise sharply and indeed the true number of cases is higher – perhaps much higher – than the number of cases we have so far confirmed with tests.
I’ve got to be clear, we’ve all got to be clear, that this is the worst public health crisis for a generation. Some people compare it to seasonal flu. Alas, that is not right. Owing to the lack of immunity, this disease is more dangerous.”
“And it’s going to spread further and I must level with you, level with the British public, many more families are going to lose loved ones before their time. And the Chief Scientific Adviser will set out the best information we have on that in a moment. But as we’ve said over the last few weeks, we have a clear plan that we are now working through. And we are now moving to the next phase in that plan.”
“Because this is now not just to attempt to contain the disease as far as possible, but to delay its spread and thereby minimise the suffering. If we delay the peak even by a few weeks, then our NHS will be in a stronger state as the weather improves and fewer people suffer from normal respiratory diseases, more beds are available and we’llhave more time for medical research. We can also act to stretch the peak of the disease over a longer period so that our society is better able to cope.”
Within just weeks, it became clear that UK society was not able to cope. Confirmed case numbers were already spiralling out of control, suspected case numbers were far higher, and deaths from coronavirus were beginning to move firmly upwards in number too. Having seen the virus move from China to Europe with devasting effect, particularly in northern Italy as it had rapidly become the epicentre of the pandemic, it was now entrenched in the shores of the UK and wreaking equal havoc. One has to question whether the seriousness of the virus was truly acknowledged within the UK corridors of power, as well as whether borders were closed quickly enough and effectively managed. Was the aforementioned economic campaign trail seen as a priority over the coronavirus-triggered ‘panic and desire for market segregation that go beyond what is medically rational’?
By 23rd March, the UK had been sent into full lockdown, with a historic address from Johnson61 that opened, “Good evening. The coronavirus is the biggest threat this country has faced for decades – and this country is not alone.”
“All over the world we are seeing the devastating impact of this invisible killer. And so tonight I want to update you on the latest steps we are taking to fight the disease and what you can do to help. And I want to begin by reminding you why the UK has been taking the approach that we have.”
“Without a huge national effort to halt the growth of this virus, there will come a moment when no health service in the world could possibly cope; because there won’t be enough ventilators, enough intensive care beds, enough doctors and nurses. And as we have seen elsewhere, in other countries that also have fantastic healthcare systems, that is the moment of real danger.”
“To put it simply, if too many people become seriously unwell at one time, the NHS will be unable to handle it – meaning more people are likely to die, not just from Coronavirus but from other illnesses as well. So it’s vital to slow the spread of the disease.”
So how did the country fare with its Covid-19 caseloads and fatalities? Was it able to slow the spread of the disease as described? Ultimately, one would have to say the answer to that is, no.
Data on confirmed cases and fatalities from coronavirus from the Coronavirus (COVID-19) in the UK website, states that as of 8th June 2021 (a date consistent with data capture for all cases explored here) there had been more than 4.5 million confirmed cases (4,542,096) of Covid-19 in the UK62 and 127, 899 deaths due to the virus63.
Like the Brazil, India and the UK, the US was politically preoccupied too as 2020 got underway, but the arguable difference is that it was so distracted on at least two big fronts if not more. In terms of foreign policy, China appeared foremost in the Trump Administration’s thinking, while domestically it was election year and a high-profile election campaign against likely frontrunner Joe Biden, with the eyes of the world watching. The stakes couldn’t have been higher.
A dynamic before and during the onset of Covid was the aforementioned trade tariffs war between the US and China. Relations were known to be tense, and it was widely reported to be an international battleground of mutual mistrust, fear and antagonism.
An end-of-year commentary article from Foreign Policy, published on 31st December 2019, described the many fronts that the Trump Administration was busy working, with mixed effects at best, in that author’s opinion. “The Trump administration has put globalisation on probation, but launching trade wars with other countries mostly produced a lot of damp squibs. The US-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) was approved by the US House of Representatives, but it’s little more than a North American Free Trade Agreement 2.0 and won’t have much impact on any of the participants. The tariff war with China was at best a draw, and Trump’s most important objectives – reducing the bilateral trade deficit and forcing China to make structural changes to its own economy – went unfulfilled,” it said64.
“World trade continued to rise (albeit at a slower rate than before), and 2019 didn’t usher in 1930s-style protectionism. One caveat: Trump and his administration have continued to shun the World Trade Organisation in favour of a bilateral approach to trade issues, a decision that is likely to slow globalisation in the future without reversing it entirely.” The article also provided opinionated commentary on the US Government’s position with NATO, Iran, Russia, the Middle East and Afghanistan throughout 2019, all of which many of us are familiar with on some level.
In fact, the open-source Wikipedia page on Foreign policy of the Donald Trump administration65 describes US foreign policy under Donald Trump from 2017-2021 as being “noted for its unpredictability and reneging on prior international commitments, upending diplomatic conventions, embracing political and economic brinkmanship with most adversaries, and straining relations with traditional allies. Trump’s ‘America First’ policy pursued nationalist foreign policy objectives and prioritised bilateral relations over multinational agreements.”
China so often seemed like a particular focal point for the Trump Administration throughout its term, but especially in 2019 as trade wars waged, which begs the question, was it at all blindsided by its position with China? Could the administration have grossly underestimated the impact of Covid via the smokescreen of trade wars and PR shoot-outs, as well as misguided ‘evidence’ related to previous coronaviruses and their control? Did the virus’ apparent origin in China only make matters worse in terms of its perceived seriousness?
For those who believe that could be the case, a preoccupation with China and blaming it for the origin of the virus throughout the pandemic would appear to reinforce that theory. President Trump repeatedly dubbed Covid-19 ‘the China virus’ and took political aim at the People’s Republic at every opportunity. This was widely reported. Some might say that more concerted efforts to combat and control the virus, and step up domestic readiness to treat Covid patients, would have been a better placed focus for the President than waging such a blame game; the backdrop to which were surging case numbers and mounting fatalities.
From data on confirmed cases and fatalities from coronavirus from the Covid-19 Dashboard by the Center for Systems Science and Engineering (CSSE) at John Hopkins University (JHU)66, updated on 08/06/2021, we can see that the US had far and away the highest number of confirmed cases, at more than 33 million (33,378,767). It also had a proportionate level of deaths at 597, 983. The US still comfortably tops both of these lists today, despite the documented surges in both Brazil and India in recent months.
Interestingly, the US had topped health expenditure as a percentage of GDP in 2018, according to data on health expenditure from the World Bank, citing the WHO Global health Expenditure Database67, bringing us back to the question for this chapter – was there a political playbook here that defied the apparent preparedness of its healthcare system?
Let’s look at the other strand of politics at play in the US, after all it was not just on foreign policy that the Trump Administration was fighting fires; there were aforementioned domestic battles at play too. As we explored earlier in this series, not only was with the US election year pending in 2020 which would be enough to distract or at least focus the thoughts of any leadership and its government, but an anonymous whistleblower alleged in August 2019 that President Trump had used the powers of his office to pressure Ukraine into investigating Democratic election frontrunner Joe Biden and his son in a call on 25th July (2019). It became a fervent political storm that deepened Democratic and Republican divisions and caught the world’s attention. By 24th September it had progressed to a formal impeachment probe. The US House voted on 31st October to hold public hearings, which opened in mid-November and, by 18th December, had concluded with the House voting along party lines to approve two articles of impeachment against the president.
A somewhat embattled end to 2019 moved to a more positive, if not terse, opening to 2020, in an election year where posturing and public confidence could be key to victory. President Trump was cleared on 5th February, in a 52-48 vote by the US Senate which acquitted him of a charge of abuse of power and also found him not guilty of obstructing the associated congressional investigation.
The world watched almost agog, however, as coronavirus emerged and quickly became a pandemic, but its existence and impact was largely met a sense of public denial that dominated the President’s narrative, just as had also been seen in Brazil with leader Jair Bolsonaro.
President Trump declared a national emergency on 13th March as cases ballooned, as described by a timeline of Trump’s foreign policy moments by the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR)68. “The move unlocks roughly $50bn in federal funding and allows the loosening of some regulations on healthcare providers. Trump also announces new efforts to boost coronavirus testing, after what many see as an anaemic federal response, and later signs more than $2 trillion in economic stimulus legislation. Trump increasingly blames China, where the virus originated, for misleading the world and threatens retaliation.”
This rhetoric continued to various degrees throughout the remainder of the Trump presidency in 2020, which could lead to questions whether the onset and response to Covid-19 was used as a political tool. Was a public denial of Covid-19 and subsequent dressage of coronavirus as the ‘China virus’ a mask of chest-thumping and political point-scoring? Was it simply an inevitable reaction to a pandemic of unknown origin, first reported in China, that would take so many lives, incur so many restrictions on society and economies?
Bigger questions of the US response to Covid-19 might include whether domestic tensions and rivalries had the same effect as any arguments for being blindsided by fraught foreign policy. Could a bitterly fought battle for presidency in the US election year have distracted a coordinated fight against Covid-19, for example? Were borders managed early enough against a backdrop of coronavirus denial? Was the response to Covid-19 – and not the political ramifications – front and centre of the sitting administration?
Distracted and disparate
As we close this chapter, we return to the same question we opened it with – at the moment the world began to sit up and take notice of this new phenomenon that was Covid-19, did there exist fervently drawn political battlegrounds that prevented an objective, unified response to impending crisis?
Could this crisis have even been averted? We have to be realistic here. With everything we know and have come to understand about this virus and its emergence, or rather the lack of understanding of its emergence, there is a strong argument to say we could not have expected to have better controlled or prevented this pandemic. Or could we? Could borders have been managed more effectively the world over, and particularly so in those countries further west that could see the domino effect of the virus’ spread from China emerging over several weeks?
If two of the four countries explored here could be described as having well-resourced and established healthcare systems in 2018/19, and three of those four had comparatively ‘healthily’ funded healthcare systems as a percentage of GDP, one has to question how and why they could all have been so overwhelmed by the pandemic. Was there a political playbook that compromised the health infrastructure beneath it?
It is important to note, in this chapter we have briefly discussed the perceived political background in each of the profiled nations, but with marked differences in the narrative concerning oxygen shortages; in Brazil and India, there were high-profile and well documented shortages of oxygen, but the same could not be said of either the UK or US, with the exception of a few reported instances. This is an important acknowledgement. We must also question firstly whether there was a link between oxygen supply and the aforementioned fatalities (this did not appear to be the case in the UK, for example) and secondly, whether the immediate political contexts impacted those oxygen supply chains in India and Brazil – or were these symptoms of the state of development in each country?
Again, the purpose of this chapter is to assess the wider political context at play and the publicly visible decision-making at the onset of – and during – the pandemic. We have been united by a mantra of vaccine, vaccine, vaccine for some time now, but the question remains whether we could calmly say that there was a unified, collective response to Covid back in the first six months of 2020. Further still, could we reasonably expect there to have been, in the context of such a disparate world as 2019 drew to a close?
Many will question whether there could be a more effective global governance structure in the years ahead that would bring nation states into line for the next great pandemic, against a backdrop of jostling political heavyweights focused on fighting only their own corners.
50. World Bank, citing World Health Organization Global Health Expenditure database (apps.who.int/nha/database)
67. World Bank, citing World Health Organization Global Health Expenditure database (apps.who.int/nha/database)