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Tomgram: Dilip Hiro, The Coronavirus Chronology From Hell

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It was the wars I noticed first and, in those years, made the heart of TomDispatch's coverage. You know, the ones that went under the label of "the war on terror," that never were won and only seemed to expand exponentially across the Greater Middle East and Africa. Those were the conflicts that somehow lacked progress, no matter how often Americans "thanked" the troops for their endless efforts, no matter how much money -- and there was always ever more of it -- poured into the Pentagon and the national security state. In other words, the world's richest, most powerful country with a military budget that left the next seven militaries combined in the dust, just couldn't do it -- not any way, not anywhere. Trillions of dollars were squandered against ill-armed groups of extremist irregulars who wielded deadly roadside bombs made for approximately the price of a pizza. In the previous century, the U.S. had similarly been unable to win two distant wars, one on the Korean peninsula and one in Vietnam. It had, however, stopped fighting in Korea, leaving behind a split peninsula and a never-ending truce. It had (finally) stopped in Vietnam, too, withdrawing in defeat. And keep in mind that, in those Cold War years of American global dominance, there were numerous places where Washington got exactly what it thought it wanted, however disastrously for the locals, from Guatemala to Iran to Chile.

But no longer. Its twenty-first-century wars could have been considered pandemic ones, even before Covid-19 appeared on the scene. They killed many (including Americans and lots of foreign civilians) and spread like wildfire. And to give him credit, Donald Trump grasped the reality of all this, however intuitively, long before, in the presidential campaign of 2016 (and in his presidency), he derided this country's "ridiculous, Endless Wars." In this country's inability to win abroad, he sensed a strange helplessness, hopelessness; in a word, decline.

Cannily enough, only days after Mitt Romney lost his presidential race to Barack Obama in 2012, Trump moved to trademark "Make America Great Again," an old tagline from the Reagan era, for a future run of his own. MAGA would, of course, become his slogan of choice in 2015-2016. As I realized at the time, in a moment when other American politicians felt obliged to call this country the most "indispensable," "exceptional," and "greatest" one on this or any other planet, that "again" in Trump's slogan officially made him the first declinist presidential candidate in our history.

As those wars -- now true pandemic ones -- go on and the U.S. military and the military-industrial complex still get ever more money for ever less results amid the greatest accumulation of disease and death on earth, that sense of decline has become part and parcel of our world, though it's seldom directly discussed in this country. Fortunately, today, TomDispatch regular Dilip Hiro is back with a pandemic chronology, as he says, "from hell," one that is also distinctly a chronology of American decline. When this decline is over, who knows what kind of planet we'll find ourselves on? Tom

The World Leadership Trophy
The Winner's Prize in the Virus-Killer Race
By Dilip Hiro

Historically, in hyper-crises, local and global systems can change fundamentally. Before the coronavirus pandemic hit first China and then the rest of the globe, the question of whether the American imperial era might be faltering was already on the table, amid that country's endless wars and with the world's most capricious leader. When humanity emerges from this devastating crisis of disease, dislocation, and impoverishment, not to mention the fracturing of a global economic system created by Washington but increasingly powered by Beijing on a climate-stressed planet, the question will be: Has the Chinese dragon pushed the American eagle down to a secondary position?

To assess that question objectively in this unsettled moment, it's necessary to examine on a day-to-day basis how the two contemporary superpowers handled the Covid-19 crisis, and ask the question: Who has proved better at combating the deadliest disease of modern times, President Donald Trump or President Xi Jinping? It's chastening to note that whereas China under Xi has suppressed the latest coronavirus at the human cost of three lives per million population, the U.S. under Trump is still struggling to overpower it, having already sacrificed 145 of every million Americans.

In the afterglow of Trump's December 16, 2019, touting of a partial trade deal with China (after a lengthy trade war), a Sino-American exchange took place. George Gao, director of the Chinese Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CCDC), spoke with his American counterpart, Robert Redfield, on January 3rd, alerting him to the arrival of an as-yet-unidentified, pneumonia-inducing virus in the city of Wuhan (news of which the Chinese government would for crucial days withhold domestically). Redfield then briefed Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar on that conversation.

Ever since, the trajectories of the policies followed by Beijing and Washington have diverged by 180 degrees. Mind you, the potential prize for the winner of the contest for killer of the super-virus is the World Leadership Trophy.

Attacked by a Virulent Virus, China Fights Back

China's National Health Commission (NHC), which had dispatched a team of experts to Wuhan on December 31st, informed the World Health Organization (WHO) that cases of pneumonia of an unknown sort had been detected in that city, linked to human exposure at a 1,000-stall wholesale seafood market, selling fish and other animals, dead and alive. With that, the Chinese scientists faced two separate challenges: to isolate the pathogen causing the disease in order to set out its genome sequencing and to determine whether or not there was human-to-human transmission of the virus.

On January 3rd, the NHC centralized all testing related to the mysterious disease and, two days later, in conjunction with experts in infectious diseases caused by pathogens that jump from animals to humans, completed the sequencing of the genome of the virus. It became accessible worldwide that January 7th. And on January 10th and 11th, the WHO issued guidance notices to all its member states about collecting samples from any patients who might show symptoms of the disease, listing stringent precautions to avoid the risk of human-to-human transmission.

On January 14th, Maria Van Kerkhove, acting head of the WHO's emerging diseases unit, offered a mixed message on the situation. She told reporters that there had, so far, been only the most limited kinds of human transmission between family members in China. Nonetheless, she added, the possibility of wider human-to-human transmission should not be regarded as "surprising" given the similarity of the new virus to the ones in the earlier SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) and MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) outbreaks. However, Reuters and China's Xinhua News Agency also quoted her as saying that there had been only the most limited human-to-human transmission of the new coronavirus so far, mainly among small clusters of family members and that "it is very clear right now that we have no sustained human-to-human transmission."

On January 16th, scientists at the German Center for Infection Research in Berlin developed a new laboratory test to detect the novel coronavirus. This offered the possibility of diagnosing suspected cases quickly. The WHO publicized it as a guideline for diagnostic detection. The leaders of many countries adopted it, but not President Trump who, in America First-style, demanded a test produced by U.S. scientists. Only on February 29th, however, would the Food and Drug Administration allow laboratories and hospitals to conduct their own Covid-19 tests to speed up the process. That was four weeks after the WHO had started distributing its effective test globally.

On January 19th that China's National Health Commission confirmed human-to-human transmission of the novel coronavirus. On that day, it publicly confirmed the first cases of person-to-person transmission. Headed by a cabinet minister, the NHC classified the novel coronavirus as a category B infectious disease under the country's 1989 Law on Prevention and Control of Infectious Diseases (revised in 2004 and 2013). This law allows the upgrading of an infectious disease to category A subject to the decision of the cabinet. Under that classification, medical institutions are authorized to treat patients in isolation in designated places and take necessary preventive measures to discover and deal with their close contacts.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)

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