Over the past months, I have seen some Trump supporters on FaceBook claim that COVID-19 was unleashed by China to damage Donald Trump so as to hurt his chances at winning reelection in the 2020 presidential race.
According to the theory I have seen presented, Trump's trade war, which he initiated in the spring of 2018, had China's economy on the ropes, and then when it was clear that the impeachment effort against him over the Ukraine scandal in late January/early February of 2020 was not going to succeed, the virus was set loose to achieve what impeachment could not.
If one looks at it at a superficial level, the timing certainly appears to be suspicious. Before COVID-19 reached epidemic levels in the United States, the US economy was performing better than ever in American history, according to Trump's supporters. Had the pandemic occurred a year earlier or a year later, the pandemic either would have slowly come under control leading up to Election Day in November of 2020, and if it had broken out a year later, it would have not yet reached pandemic levels in time to be a factor in the election.
But does this theory hold up under scrutiny? Let's look at some counterarguments.
1. What was the mechanism to spread COVID-19?
If you were China and you wanted to infect a critical mass of United States citizens with the virus, I can only think of two ways. One, have dozens or more government agents who have obtained visas to travel to the United States injected with the virus just before they are ready to depart so that they can enter America before they develop the symptoms. Two, which likely would be more difficult, would be to bring samples of the virus with them in some kind of secure containers that they could then use to infect themselves and/or others. Once arrived in the United States, they would be in a position to visit public places as they start to develop symptoms and then cough and sneeze around people so as so spread the infection to them. An advantage to this is that it would create plausible deniability for the PRC government. So many Americans would have become infected that the Chinese agents would just be among a small number of countless infected people. They could lie about when they first started to feel symptoms so as to throw off contact tracing efforts. How easy would it be for local and federal health officials to connect the dots?
What do we know about the entry of COVID-19 into the United States? The first case reported by the CDC was on January 21, 2020.
"The patient from Washington with confirmed 2019-nCoV infection returned to the United States from Wuhan on January 15, 2020. The patient sought care at a medical facility in the state of Washington, where the patient was treated for the illness. Based on the patient’s travel history and symptoms, healthcare professionals suspected this new coronavirus. A clinical specimen was collected and sent to CDC overnight, where laboratory testing yesterday confirmed the diagnosis via CDC’s Real time Reverse Transcription-Polymerase Chain Reaction (rRT-PCR) test."
Notice what happened. The patient sought medical attention, which was then reported to the CDC. Someone deliberately trying to spread the virus in the United States would not bring attention to him or herself by seeking help and identifying where he or she came from.
2. How Could China Micromanage A Global Pandemic?
So if the PRC did not send deliberately infected agents to the United States, could they have done it elsewhere?
My state, New York, was one of the first states that was really hit hard by the pandemic, with the virus having entered from travelers from Europe.
Led by NYU Grossman School of Medicine researchers, the new study used gene testing to trace the origins of severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), the pandemic virus, throughout the New York City region in the spring. It showed that the virus first took root in late February, seeded by at least 109 different sources that burst into chains of infection, rather than from a single “patient zero.”
The study revealed that the genetic codes of the virus in New York more closely matched those of strains from Europe or other U.S. states rather than those from China, where the virus originated. In addition, some of the early chains of infection from person to person ran at least 50 people long.
According to Trump supporters, because of the restrictions on travel into the United States that Trump imposed at the end of January of 2020, the Chinese would need to find an alternative way of striking at us. Europe would be a logical back door.
But how would they go about doing this? To go back to my first question, did they send government agents infected with the virus to Europe in the hope that they could sneeze and cough on enough people that a critical mass of them would travel to the United States to achieve community spread here within a narrow window of opportunity?If someone reading this wants to propose a plausible scenario to explain this, I would love to hear from you.
How Could China Know How Trump Would Respond?
If there was one overarching theme to Donald Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, it was that he would protect America from bad people and bad things. His infamous speech that kicked off his campaign saw him rail against Mexican rapists, murderers and drug dealers. He called for a "complete and total shutdown" of all Muslims entering the United States.
During the Ebola scare in 2014, Trump constantly railed against then President Obama for not doing enough to keep the Ebola virus out of the United States. Below is a sampling of his tweets on the subject.
Now, based on Trump's rhetoric, I would have expected, and the PRC likely as well should have expected, that as soon as COVID-19 became known to the world, Trump would have instinctively acted to close off the United States to international travel from all countries, to use his words about banning Muslims, "until we can figure out what the hell is going on!" Frankly, I was surprised Trump did not go what I call "Fortress America" and take this route. Ironically, if he had, and it resulted in the United States experiencing significantly fewer COVID cases, Trump would have skated to reelection.
One can't argue that Trump didn't know how serious COVID-19 was, because Bob Woodward recorded a conversation he had with Trump on February 7 of 2020:
“It goes through the air,” Trump said in a recording of a Feb. 7 interview with Woodward. “That’s always tougher than the touch. You don’t have to touch things. Right? But the air, you just breathe the air and that’s how it’s passed.
“And so that’s a very tricky one. That’s a very delicate one. It’s also more deadly than even your strenuous flus.”And yet Trump waited until March 11 to announce restrictions on travel into the United States from Europe that took effect on March 13. A few days afterwards, Trump confessed to Woodward that he likes to downplay the severity of the virus, as his public statements consistently claimed that the virus was under control and wouldn't be a problem.
Was Donald Trump Winning the Trade War?
In order for COVID-19 to have been intentionally released by the People's Republic of China in response to Trump's trade war against it, it would need to be demonstrated that the trade war was causing serious harm to China's economy.
I think even Trump's most ardent detractors on this issue would admit that his trade policies did have at least some negative impact on China. The question is, on balance, did China "lose" the trade war?
This article from NPR provides a nuanced take on the matter, while noting that China was already beginning to lose its competitive advantage as a country that provided low cost manufacturing.
But Devereux concedes that he had already been considering a move to Vietnam when the opening shots of the trade war were fired.
"Wages have been going up steadily over the years, which happens when you get a more educated populace," says U.C. San Diego's Shih.
A more educated population means fewer low-skilled workers for production lines in factories like Fangjie Printing and Packaging Company. Factories have to offer higher wages to attract the best workers. And those wages eat into the bottom lines of the companies that Devereux places in Chinese factories.
"If you look at Vietnam now, you've got wages being roughly one-third of what they are here in China," says Devereux. And so the trade war merely sped up his move out of China and into Vietnam. "Two or three of our American customers, knowing we were looking in Vietnam, asked us to accelerate that" when the trade war began, he says.
"Even in the absence of a trade war, China's growth rate would have come down. The trade war makes it worse, but the trade war is not the primary reason," says Shang-Jin Wei, an expert on the Chinese economy at Columbia University and a former International Monetary Fund official.
In response to Trump's tariffs, China stopped buying soybeans from the United States and turned to Brazil. As a consequence of this, the Trump administration had to provide billions of dollars of aid to US soybean farmers. Oddly enough, Brazil has the second highest number of COVID cases and deaths in the world. Why would China want this to happen and possibly jeopardize its soybean supplies? And if China could micromanage the spread of the pandemic to cause Trump to lose in 2020, then why couldn't they micromanage it enough to not infect so many people in Brazil?
What I Believe Happened and Donald Trump's Missed Opportunity
I have an alternative theory about what happened with the origin of COVID-19 that does not rely on a tin foil hat conspiracy while at the same time not letting China off of the hook.
While I can't prove it, I believe that it is entirely plausible that a lab worker at the Wuhan Institute of Virology was accidentally, and probably even unknowingly, infected with the virus. I found this article dating from 2014 that discusses the problem of dangerous diseases that escape from laboratories. This lab worker, after getting infected, could have easily gone to one of the wet markets or some other public place in the city while asymptomatic and spread the virus to others. It's also possible the virus originated in the wet market and it's just a coincidence that the virology institute happens to be in the same city.
Now here is where the problem lies with the People's Republic of China. The current leader of China, Xi Jinping, is probably the most powerful read of the country since Mao Zedong and is seen as a new Mao. During the "Great Leap Forward", China adopted a number of disastrous policies that resulted in the death of millions of people from starvation. The misery and suffering went on as long as it did because the policies were decreed by Mao Zedong, therefore no one could tell him that these policies were a failure.
When COVID-19 began to spread in Wuhan, it was first noticed by an ophthalmologist named Li Wenliang. On December 30, 2019, he sent a warning to fellow doctors in a group chat. A few days later, he was visited by the local police warning him that he was making false statements and disturbing "the social order." In other words, the local government officials in Wuhan needed to suppress information about the virus because it was embarrassing for them, and in the political climate of the PRC, it would make Xi Jinping look bad as well. Consequently, by trying to suppress knowledge of the virus and its severity early on, the Chinese government officials responsible provided a window for the virus to not only become entrenched in Wuhan, but to spread beyond it as well. Sadly, Doctor Li Wenliang himself died from the virus in February of 2020.
And now, to bring Donald Trump back into this, I believe the coronavirus pandemic was potentially a tremendous gift to him. It was an opportunity to demonstrate real leadership that he ultimately failed badly due to his defects in character.
A lot of people, mostly on the Left, criticized Trump when he started to refer to COVID-19 as the "China virus." They complained that it was racist and fanned the flames of xenophobia against Asian-Americans, and that it was just meant to deflect blame from his own failures. I suppose it is possible, though I don't know if there is hard data to quantify it. Some Trump supporters countered that why is it okay to refer to other epidemics with names such as the Spanish Flu or the German Measles, or mutations of the coronavirus as the UK variant or the South African variant, for example.
But given the political situation I described above in China, there was a much better name that Trump could have called the virus that squarely blamed the government of China for the pandemic while completely evading any accusations of racism or ethnic hatred. Donald Trump could have and should have called it the Xi Jinping Virus. It would have squarely placed the blame for the initial outbreak and spread of the virus on a man and his government. I don't know if the idea ever occurred to Trump or any of his advisors. But if it did, there was one reason why he couldn't have done this. And the fault for that lies with Donald Trump. On January 24, 2020, he posted this: