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SCMP OpEd: The US and China should fight the coronavirus together now, and quarrel later

SCMP OpEd: The US and China should fight the coronavirus together now, and quarrel later

President Donald Trump’s practice of calling Covid-19 a “Chinese virus” has resulted in race-baiting and fear in the United States. At the same time, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman’s suggestions that the US military might be responsible for the epidemic have stoked anti-US sentiment across China. Thank goodness presidents Trump and Xi Jinping have started talking in the last few days, at long last. But the hard feelings between the two countries still endure.

Now is not the time for such counterproductive finger-pointing. Instead, the US and China should be working together to fight this crisis. The enemy is the coronavirus – not any nation or people.

Unfortunately, for a few years now, tensions between Washington and Beijing have been ratcheting up, and trust between the two countries has plummeted. As a result, American businesses are trying to decouple their supply chains from China, while China is developing its own parallel internet infrastructure. Chinese scientists in the US are being investigated, while American journalists are being thrown out of China.

Now that we are facing a global pandemic, this dangerous new paradigm of disconnection is leading us to the brink of disaster. As the world’s two largest economies, the US and China must work together to find scientific and humanitarian solutions to tackle the pandemic and devise financial strategies – utilising their combined economic firepower in tandem – to save the global economy.

Dividing the world into two separate scientific, economic and technological spheres – particularly at a time when the US and Chinese economies are struggling to recover – could be disastrous for all.

We Americans may not like China’s authoritarian political system. But like it or not, China is the world’s second great power, and now is the time to learn from each other, find ways to coexist, and to collaborate in tackling global challenges. What’s more, extending a collaborative hand at this time would be an act of true leadership: this is not the moment to cede world leadership to Beijing.

The US is in acute need of medical equipment and supplies that China can help provide. The Department of Health and Human Services has estimated that the US will need some 3.5 billion masks. Vice-president Mike Pence said the federal government had ordered “hundreds of millions” of N95s for health care centres across the country, but hospitals are already experiencing severe shortages.

Fortunately, supplies from China are starting to flow in as the virus recedes there and its factories rev up the manufacturing of masks and surgical gowns for export once again. It’s also heartening to see some Chinese and American scientists are starting to work together to research into vaccines and treatments for the coronavirus. Researchers from Harvard Medical School and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, for example, have launched a collaboration with Guangzhou Institute of Respiratory Health and Zhong Nanshan, a leading epidemiologist who is head of the Chinese task force on the coronavirus.

Yes, there are things we Americans can learn from China now. As the epidemic in the US accelerates, there may be much to learn from China’s experience.

What were the most effective tactics deployed by the Chinese government and medical community to slow – even stop – the virus’ spread? What fiscal and economic measures might China deploy to slowly get the economy moving again, hopefully without sparking another outbreak?

As the world’s two superpowers, the US and China will sometimes be partners and sometimes rivals.

Yes, there is cause for vigilance when it comes to cybersecurity and geopolitics, and once our economies come back to life, the rules of business should be reworked to ensure a level playing field. But without China’s partnership, we Americans will be unable to effectively tackle pandemics, climate change, terrorism, inequitable development and natural disasters.

This is also a time for increased humanity and empathy. At a recent China Institute programme on fear and the coronavirus, a Chinese doctor joined via WeChat from China and shared her challenges working on the front line in a Wuhan hospital and strategies for mitigating the virus’ spread.

Things were beginning to improve in Wuhan. “Thank you for lending us your spiritual support,” the doctor said, holding back her emotions. “I wish you all good health. May you all get through this crisis swiftly.”

There will be plenty of time, after we get through this crisis, to analyse the mistakes made by governments around the world. We may one day learn the ultimate costs of China’s initial cover-up of the outbreak and of the US government’s slow response to the virus’ spread.

But in the spirit of the Wuhan doctor, now is the time for our leaders, and for us all as human beings, to rise above parochial and nationalistic interests and work together to tackle challenges that reach far beyond national borders.

    James Heimowitz is president of the China Institute in America. Dorinda (Dinda) Elliott is China Institute’s senior vice-president for programmes.


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