Coronavirus outbreak: Pandemic has given a new sinister meaning to Donald Trump's 'America First' strategy

Sreemoy Talukdar
·12-min read

Will the novel coronavirus pandemic prove to be United States' Suez moment, that inflection point in history in 1956 when the sun finally set on British empire? That answer lies in the future, but the coronavirus has already undermined America's position as a superpower and revealed it as incompetent €" thereby undercutting one of its chief claims to global leadership.

America's status as the global leader was built, as former US assistant secretary of state Kurt M. Campbell and Brookings Institution director Rush Doshi point out in Foreign Affairs, over a period of seven decades "not just on wealth and power but also, and just as important, on the legitimacy that flows from the US domestic governance, provision of global public goods, and ability and willingness to muster and coordinate a global response to crises."

That legitimacy is now in question, given the helplessness evident in US administration at all levels and the scattergun approach in dealing with the contagion. When countries around the world look at the US for direction, pragmatism and leadership, they see a nation wallowing in confusion, panic and self-pity, ill-prepared to deal with the public health crisis. They see overwhelmed US funeral homes turning families away.

The 9/11 terror attacks killed 3000 Americans, leading the US 'war on terror'. The pandemic has so far claimed 14, 817 American lives. US president Donald Trump says anything between 100,000 and 200,000 deaths would mean his administration has "done a very good job".

For professor Stephen M Walt of Harvard University, America's outsized influence around the world rested on three pillars €" "awesome combination of economic and military strength", "support from an array of allies" and "confidence" in US "competence". As he writes in Foreign Policy, "when other countries recognise the United States' strength, support its aims and believe US officials know what they are doing, they are more likely to follow the€¦ lead. If they doubt its power, its wisdom, or its ability to act effectively, US global influence inevitably erodes€¦ If the US leaders reveal themselves to be incompetent bunglers, why should foreign powers listen to their advice?"

The US is leading the world in number of positive cases (432,132 on Thursday according to data from Johns Hopkins University), has recorded nearly 15,000 deaths and has squandered its global reputation for efficiency, proficiency and leadership. Stunning as it is, the impact of this development will be far-reaching. It may accelerate the shifting of geopolitical axis and fundamentally reshape the global order with China emerging as the new leader with its own economic model, political tool and value system.

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But the pandemic has revealed another side of the US that the world was unprepared for. Suddenly, Trump's 'America First' strategy has taken on a more sinister meaning in a world locked in a royal scrum over critical medical equipment.

Far from leading a coordinated global response against the deadliest contagion in a century €" as it did during the Ebola crisis in 2014 by providing "immediate humanitarian assistance while also working to alleviate health, economic and social impacts of the outbreak in West Africa", the coronavirus has forced the US to play a dirty game over protective personal equipment €" bringing its considerable money power to bear over supplies amid a global shortage and proving again the old adage of 'might is right'.

The genesis of the problem lies in the fact that the US was thoroughly unprepared for the pandemic, underestimated its scale, size and magnitude of the crisis, was slow to react and then made a series of crucial errors in the early stages.

A survey released by National Nurses United in February, that involved responses from 6,500 nurses across 48 American states, found just 63 percent of nurses had access to N95 respirators in their units, while only 27 percent had access to respirators. Only 30 percent of survey participants said that their employers had enough PPE stocked in the event of a quick uptick in potential coronavirus patients. The survey had called the US government "wildly unprepared".

China was struggling to contain the pandemic by mid-January, but America waited until mid-March to begin placing bulk orders of N95 respirator masks, mechanical ventilators and other equipment needed by front-line health care workers, according to another report.

As the cases in US started witnessing an alarming rise and the worst-affected states were left fighting with each other for supplies, the Trump administration was jolted into action, trying to replenish a stockpile that hadn't been refurbished in two decades. Trouble is, the sweep and scale of the pandemic by that time had spread panic among all nations from Asia to Europe to the Americas, and nearly all affected nations were desperate for scarce PPE and medical supplies, leading to a global competition.

What has unfolded since then has been called the superpower's 'Wild West tactics'. The US and its agents started throwing money around in an audacious bid to gather as many protective gear as they possibly can, sometimes quoting way above the market price to airlift overseas consignments meant for other nations.

The Trump administration, in order to dramatically increase its PPE stockpile, took a two-pronged approach. On 3 April, the US President invoked Defense Production Act (DPA), a Korean war-era law, that gives the federal government sweeping powers over American firms including forcing the companies to redirect all their products to domestic market and halting, if needed, all exports. But Trump went one step further. He forced US manufacturing giant 3M, that makes crucial medical equipment including N95 respirators, to stop exporting masks as well as send all masks to the US that are manufactured in factories overseas.

The company 3M said the White House had ordered it to stop all shipments to Canada and Latin America of respirators that it manufactures in the US, despite what 3M called "significant humanitarian implications" leaving Canadians "hurt and disappointed".

It is worth remembering that while the Trump administration went into panic mode in March, as late as February, when the pandemic's real nature was up for assessment, the US exports of ventilators and oxygenation products to China "were up 138 percent from the previous year, while exports of gas and face masks with filters rose 1315 percent, according to data from the Census Bureau. Exports of protective garments were up 493 percent in the same period," according to a report in the New York Times.

The decision to block all exports and redirect all equipment made by American companies to domestic market created a geopolitical storm. The US government reportedly tried to force 3M to export N95 masks from its Singapore facilities to the US rather than sending them to markets in Asia.

A consignment of 200,000 special FFP2 and FFP3 masks made by 3M for Germany was intercepted in Thailand and diverted to the US. According to German newspaper Tagesspiegel, Berlin police had placed an order with 3M to deliver the masks that were produced in a factory in China. The cargo was due to be reloaded at Bangkok airport and flown to Germany, except that "it went straight to the US."

The London-based Financial Times newspaper quoted Germany's interior minister Andreas Geisel as saying that the consignment that had been "confiscated" in Bangkok and never reached Berlin, was an "act of modern piracy€¦ You don't treat your transatlantic partners like that." Mayor of Berlin Michael Müller accused Trump of "lacking solidarity" and behaving "irresponsibly".

3M disputed the claim, and later the German interior minister appeared to backtrack from the charges. It is worth noting that the US was not alone in employing bullying tactics to shore up its critical medical stockpile. Countries around the world banned export of PPE and joined the race to collect as many masks, face shields, gowns, respirators, ventilators as they can €" even by bending rules.

France prevented its manufacturer from delivering a consignment of masks across the channel into UK by putting a "requisition order". Germany itself was accused of seizing a shipment of Chinese-made masks bound for Switzerland while it was being trans-shipped, leaving the Swiss mad with rage.

A degree of desperation in these troubled times in understandable. What differentiates the US brand of hoarding and economic nationalism is the scale and audacity of its approach.

During a White House briefing on 6 April, Trump told the media that "through Project Airbridge, we have succeeded in bringing planeloads of vital supplies into the US from overseas. We had an additional three. These are massive planes, by the way. The big planes €" they're very big, very powerful, and they're loaded to the gills with supplies."

It seems curious that when nearly all countries have banned export of crucial medical equipment and are fighting desperately for whatever little is available on the global marketplace, Trump's planes are flying into the US "loaded to the gills with supplies". Two questions arise. What is Project Airbridge? And second, when all nations are competing for the supplies, how on earth has Trump been successful in procuring "massive amount of supplies from other nations"?

Turns out that Project Airbridge is a joint effort by the US federal government and private companies to bring PPE to the US on a mass scale. The flights are being coordinated by FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) and the US State department, and Trump's son-in-law is the White House man in the effort. Trump told the media on Sunday that the first flight from Shanghai landed in New York with 80 tons of PPE, containing roughly 130,000 N95 masks, 1.8 million face masks and gowns, more than 10.3 million gloves and more than 70,000 thermometers."

Two things are worth noting. That the flight came from Shanghai, and the inclusion of private players in the government project.

Around this time, when Trump was busy touting the efficacy of Project Airbridge, US allies around the world from Europe to South America were expressing outrage at the way mysterious US moneybags were snatching away their supplies €" made by China €" right from the airport tarmac.

A Guardian report dated 3 April, quoted two French officials as saying "US buyers waving wads of cash managed to wrest control of a consignment of masks as it was about to be dispatched from China to one of the worst-hit coronavirus areas of France". The masks, according to the report, were on a plane at Shanghai airport that was ready to take off when the US buyers turned up and offered three times the money.

One of the officials was Jean Rottner, a doctor and president of the GrandEst regional council. He told RTL radio: "On the (airport) tarmac, the Americans get out their cash and pay three or four times what we have offered." The New York Times report that carried Rottner's allegation, also carried similar accusations from Brazil's health minister Luiz Henrique Mandetta. According to the minister, China had ditched Brazilian equipment orders when the US government sent more than 20 cargo planes to the country to buy the same products. "Our purchases, which we expected to complete in order to be able to supply, many were dropped," he was quoted, as saying on Wednesday.

Canada's prime minister Justin Trudeau has described such reports as "concerning". According to The Guardian, he asked "officials to look into similar claims that masks were being diverted away from his country."

Not just Germany, France, Brazil or Canada, the government of Barbados, a Caribbean nation strapped for supplies, has said that the US has blocked the export of 20 ventilators that had been donated to the island.

The US, of course, has denied all allegations. It called all such reports as "completely false". This is where the inclusion of private partners in Project Airbridge offers plausible deniability. The game becomes clear when we look at the larger picture. Well may the US "deny" reports, a US department of homeland security official was quoted by Reuters this week as saying that US firms and the government have been paying above market price for much of the gear purchased overseas. He clarified that the US would not stop buying "until we have way too much" and could still be searching out protective gear abroad through August.

Further, reports have emerged from Germany that the Trump administration offered a German medical company a huge sum of money to secure exclusive rights over a coronavirus vaccine. The Guardian quoted Germany's economy minister Peter Altmaier as saying, "Germany is not for sale." Though the German firm later denied receiving such offers, the European Union has reportedly offered up to ‚¬80 million to support the vaccine developer.

The reports are too many to be refuted. They paint the image of a super-rich America on the move, throwing piles of cash around to secure everything for itself during a global emergency at the cost of beggaring the world of critical supplies. America's global leadership, among other things, also rests on a moral legitimacy that derives from its actions. This act of plain thuggery during a pandemic knocks it off that pedestal.

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