Beyond the most profound health impacts worldwide — including in Minnesota, which on Thursday reported its 508th COVID-19 fatality — the coronavirus pandemic has infected economics and geopolitics to crisis levels, too.
It's imperative to mitigate the damage while the world waits for a vaccine that can end this scourge. But that will be more difficult, and thus deadly, if China and America devolve deeper toward a U.S.-U.S.S.R.-style Cold War.
"This is the most perilous moment since World War II," Ryan Hass, a fellow at the Brookings Institution's China Center, told an editorial writer. "This is the most acute public-health crisis that the world has faced in a century. It's hitting every major country simultaneously. The ability of world powers to collaborate is severely diminished; multilateral institutions like the World Health Organization, the U.N., the G-7, the G-20 just aren't functional."
The injuries these institutions have endured is due in part to hostility from Washington, where President Donald Trump has undermined confidence and cooperation in postwar entities meant to guide and galvanize the world through a crisis. If these multinational organizations cannot curb the virus, efforts must be led by Beijing and Washington. But at the moment, Hass notes, "the U.S.-China relationship is in free fall and there doesn't appear to be any effort in Beijing and Washington to preserve its capacity to collaborate in arresting the spread of the virus or destruction that it is causing."
Instead, Hass continued, "those countries are trying to place the other in the worst possible light on the international stage."
The motivation is domestic politics for President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping. Xi may not face a November election but is suddenly vulnerable despite previous veneration of his leadership that made him China's most powerful leader since Mao.
Trump, as well as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, have alleged — without evidence — that the virus emerged from a lab in Wuhan and not naturally through animal-to-human transmission, as most experts believe. There's also talk among some supporters of the administration about pressing for reparations, or even not paying some of the debt the U.S. owes China.
These moves have alienated allies — including those who rightfully take umbrage at Beijing's manipulative extraction of praise in exchange for desperately needed equipment. Instead, the president should be rallying allies, and indeed the world, in a coordinated coronavirus effort as well as in a longer-term response to a rising China.
For China, "trying to impose its narrative of the coronavirus both internationally but more importantly domestically is important for the leadership to rehabilitate and consolidate its position and legitimacy in the system," Hung Tran, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, told an editorial writer. He added that it may also embolden China to take a more dangerous stance toward Taiwan, Hong Kong and its maritime claims in the South China Sea.
Xi's geopolitical push is also about "trying to generate more widespread support among Chinese for how quickly and efficiently and presumably effectively the Chinese have come out of this while the rest of the world, especially America, can't seem to control the virus," Evan Medeiros, the chair of Asian Studies at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service, told an editorial writer. As for Trump, Medeiros said, "this is largely for him a recognition that blaming China deflects responsibility from the cascade of shortcomings within the United States."
China clearly deserves some blame. Wuhan was the epicenter, regardless of how the virus originated, and the Chinese Communist Party suppressed the information that could have helped contain COVID-19 to a regional outbreak, not a global pandemic that's breaking the world's economy, and order.
On a longer-term basis, Beijing has a horrific human rights record toward Tibetans, Uighurs and others. It's also the world's biggest jailer of journalists, it threatens neighboring nations with its territorial aggression, and it makes a practice of illegitimate, if not illegal, trade practices.
These, and other issues like an overreliance on China for essential materials, will need to be strategically assessed by the U.S. and its allies regardless of who wins November's election. But for now the literal life-or-death imperative is the pandemic.
"The only way to make the United States safe is to stamp out the virus in every corner of the world," Hass said. "The only way to stamp out the virus in every corner of the world is to align international efforts to do so, and there's no pathway to doing that without China on board. And so it's time to tone down the rhetoric, take a break from the finger pointing, and roll up our sleeves and figure out how to get our arms around the problem.
"The American people," Hass rightfully concluded, "deserve it."