Sunday, April 04, 2021

Did Communist China Unleash Coronavirus to Keep Trump From Being Reelected?

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:

Now what strikes me as very odd about this tweet is that Trump's rhetoric had consistently portrayed the People's Republic of China as a bad actor on the world stage that could not be trusted.  Knowing what the government of China is, why would Trump praise China for its transparency and thank President Xi over its handling of the virus?  Was he not receiving briefings from his intelligence advisors about what was happening in China? It doesn't make sense to me why he would come across so naive and gullible in making such a public statement.  

Had Donald Trump called the virus the Xi Jinping Virus early on and called on his supporters to wear masks, socially distance and accept other measures to help him stifle the spread of the virus in the United States, I am absolutely convinced they would have fallen into line and done whatever he wanted.  Instead, one gets the impression that Trump just didn't want to seriously address the threat and foolishly hoped it would somehow work out alright in the end.  Why he didn't react to the threat of the virus early on like he ranted about Ebola in 2014 is a mystery to me.  Trump had a golden opportunity to tackle a threat and defeat it, which he foolishly squandered.

Is it possible that Communist China allowed the virus to spread out into the world in the hope that somehow it would spread in such a way as to cause the United States to be the worst hit?  I can't say with 100% certainty that it didn't happen.  But what seems more likely to me is that the virus was incredibly lucky to encounter a United States helmed by a man who could have done a much better job trying to thwart it if he had really tried.

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

The Return of Katrina and Gilbert

Last November, in my post On Becoming A Cat Person, two of the cats I wrote about who had become a part of my life were Katrina and Gilbert.  

Katrina was a frequent guest in our home who occasionally escaped, only to be recaptured after a few days, weeks or months.  After her last escape in May of 2020, she went her longest period of time outdoors.  She never left and basically lived on and under our backyard deck and coming to our patio door when she wanted to be fed.  With winter approaching in December, I decided to try and recapture her again.  I used the tried and true method to entice her into the house with food and then close the patio screen door, but she was wary of this and would bolt out of the house at the slightest suspicion that anything was afoot.  I decided to play the long game with her and let her come in the house night at night without making any attempt to shut her in so that she might let her guard down.  Then one night in mid-December, even with me standing right by the back door, Katrina strode into the dining room.  Amazed at my luck, I slid the patio door shut and just like that she was back in the house.  It was kind of funny, as she looked up in shock as she realized what happened to her.

One change I made after her previous stays with us was to block her access behind the love seat in the living room, as she would spend the majority of her day hiding behind or underneath it.  While Katrina is still very shy and won't let us pet her, if I put my hand in front of her, sometimes she will lean forward to sniff it and then I will touch her on the nose.  In some ways she is a little less shy than she was before.  Now she follows Snickers into the kitchen when he comes in to pester me to give him treats.  She is also more likely to nap out in the open and often seems unphased by our presence.  Sadly, she still has her frequent bouts of asthma attacks, and because she won't let me get close to her, I can't give her the medicine that I would give to Snickers when he would have his semi-annual respiratory issues.  Otherwise she seems to have settled back in nicely and often plays around with Snickers, sometimes even initiating contact with him and getting him to lick her fur.

The most stunning development though has been the unexpected return of a once daily visitor to our deck.  Around 5 am this past Thursday the 17th, I was excitedly awoken by my wife, who cried out "Honey, Gilbert is here!"  

The shaggy Maine Coon had not been seen by us since May of 2019, nearly two years.  While a part of me had held out hope over that time that Gilbert was out there somewhere and might still come back some day, I had pretty much written him off as gone for good.  But when I rolled out of bed and shuffled over to the back door that morning last week, there he was looking up at me.

I went out the front door with a bag of cat food and around the side of the house to the back to feed him as I had done so many times before.  As was his pattern of behavior in the past, he would retreat a few feet and then approach after I had put out the food.  He alternated between hissing if I got too close for comfort and then switching to a soft meow that belied his large stature.  One thing different I noticed about him is that the top part of his left ear was clipped off, which told me that at some point during the past 22 months someone had captured him and had him neutered.

We wondered if Gilbert was just making a guest appearance or if he would be a regular visitor again.  Well, not only did he come back, he pretty much didn't leave.  While we don't see much of him during the day time (we believe he is spending that time under our deck), Gilbert stays on our deck all night.  Not only that, he spends much of that time sitting right at our patio door staring in at us.  It's hard to tell what he wants.  I have put Snickers and Katrina away a few times and opened the door to give Gilbert the opportunity to come in, but when he does, it is tentative and fleeting, and he retreats back out to the deck usually after a few minutes.  I am not sure if he wants to live indoors with us but is just too shy to take that step, or if he is interested in Snickers and/or Katrina.  One change I have noticed in his behavior is that he will sometimes rub himself against the patio screen door and then lay on his back and roll around in a playful manner.  Assuming he stays, I might try to give him the time to become more comfortable with us and then see if I can entice him in and see if we can make him a house cat.  The wildcard in the equation is how Snickers and he will get a long, as having two male cats in the house might lead to territorial aggression between the two.  Though Gilbert is clearly a survivor, he is probably getting up there in years.  I don't know his age, but I would estimate he has to be at least 7 years old, as he was already fully grown when we first spotted him in the summer of 2016.  

Another development is that the other Maine Coon who has been a regular visitor in the last couple of years, Oscar, has practically vanished since Gilbert reappeared.  In the past week Oscar showed up and shared the deck with Gilbert only once.  I did not observe any hostility between them and they kept their distance from each other.   Then again, around the time Gilbert stopped showing up in May of 2019, he was almost immediately replaced by Oscar.  That suggests there is some kind of territorial dispute going on between them.  It would not surprise me though if Oscar is still close by in the neighborhood and that we will see him again someday in the near future.

Saturday, March 13, 2021

First Blood and the Age of Black Lives Matter

Recently, the Sylvester Stallone movie First Blood has been playing a lot on cable.  I hadn't watched it in decades and I have to admit I had forgotten what a morally ambiguous film it is, as well as just being a flat out good movie.  I suspect what happened is that it got overshadowed by the following two sequels with their gung ho patriotic themes and John Rambo being an unabashed all-American hero who fights and defeats evil communists.

First Blood, which is adapted from a novel with the same name, gives us a very different Rambo.  A former Green Beret who served in Vietnam, where we later learn he was "an expert in guerrilla warfare...In Vietnam his job was to dispose of enemy personnel. To kill. Period", Rambo back home in the United States is an aimless drifter who can't fit back into American society.

But what struck me as most interesting about First Blood is how it resonates with what has been happening in America in the last few years, particularly after the death of George Floyd last year, over the abuse of police authority and the violent reaction it can elicit.

In a short introduction, Rambo visits the home of a former comrade in arms from Vietnam only to find out that the man had passed away months earlier from cancer. He then proceeds to walk into a nearby town called Hope, only to draw the attention of the town sheriff Will Teasle, portrayed by Brian Dennehy.  Teasle accosts Rambo and offers to give him a ride out of town.  Though he tries to present a friendly face to Rambo, he becomes cross when Rambo asks him why the sheriff won't allow him to get a bite to eat in the town.  After briefly letting his mask slip, Teasle's friendly tone returns and he tells Rambo that it's a boring town and he gets paid to keep it that way.  One gets the sense that Teasle has probably dealt with numerous other outside drifters in the same way.

The scene below is where the plot of First Blood kicks into motion:

Sheriff Teasle drops Rambo off outside of town, offers him some patronizing advice, and then cheerfully wishes him a good day before driving away.  All Rambo has to do is keep on walking away from the town and the movie ends right there.  Instead, we see Rambo pause momentarily in thought and then defiantly walk back towards the town.  Teasle, seeing in his rear view mirror that Rambo has challenged his authority, turns his car back around and arrests Rambo.

Now, to be clear, Teasle is abusing his position as a law enforcement officer and is violating Rambo's civil rights.  Rambo has done nothing wrong to justify Teasle's treatment of him.  Still, while Teasle is clearly in the wrong, he is not an evil man.  From his perspective, he has probably seen his share of drifters come into the town and engage in petty crimes or mischief, and Rambo fit the profile, which is why he tried to expedite Rambo's passage out of the town.*  

Back at the station, we see Rambo being physically uncooperative when one of the deputies tries to take his fingerprints.  Another deputy becomes abusive towards Rambo, which triggers a flashback to torture he endured from his Vietnamese captors in the war, causing him to violently lash out and overpower a number of deputies before escaping.  Outside, he steals a motorbike from one of the town residents and rides off out of the town.

Flash forward to the climax of the movie.  After Rambo has evaded in turn the sheriff and then the National Guard trying to either capture or kill him, he makes his way back to the town and proceeds to blow up a gas station, a gun store and then shoots up the sheriff's station, before shooting and seriously wounding Teasle.  In his effort to keep the town boring, Teasle ultimately set in motion a chain of events that brought violence and destruction to the town.

What struck me as interesting about First Blood from a contemporary perspective is how it touches on the themes and arguments raised by both sides in the debate over police abuse of power and the responses to it in the Black Lives Matter protests across the country last year.  

A frequent complaint made by the Back the Blue crowd is that blacks who are either physically hurt or killed in encounters with police officers are often at fault because they are non-compliant and uncooperative.  If they would just do what the police officers ask them to do and be deferential and respectful, they would not be harmed.  If one watches Rambo from that perspective, shouldn't we see him as the bad guy in First Blood?   After all, Rambo chose to go back into town knowing that he wasn't wanted there.  When being processed at the station, he was uncooperative with the deputies, causing several of them to become more aggressive with him in response.  He physically assaults about five or six of them while escaping and he overpowers a town resident and steals his motorbike.  In the end, Rambo returns to the town like a one man Antifa or Black Lives Matter protest, engaging in violence and property destruction.  However unjustly he was treated earlier in the movie, are we supposed to root for him when he blows up a gas station and goes gunning for the sheriff?  

One thought I had was what if the events of First Blood happened in real life and Rambo was black, and we found out about it on the news?   Right wing talking heads like Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity  would likely portray Rambo as a villain who engaged in violence against law enforcement and the property of law abiding small business owners.  

The left, on the other hand, would highlight the mistreatment Rambo suffered at the hands of law enforcement, which they allege is all too typical of the kind of harassment and injustice black Americans experience virtually every day in their encounters with the police.  If Americans are upset about the violence they see in some protests against police brutality, then they should address the problem of police brutality so that there won't be a need for such protests.

What makes First Blood a good movie is that it is not a typical 80's action movie with a clear cut good guy vs. bad guy plot.  Rambo just wanted to pass through town and maybe get a bite to eat while Sheriff Teasle just saw a potentially troublesome drifter whom he wanted to get out of town as quickly and quietly as possible.  Neither of them ever wanted things to turn out the way they did, but their choices and actions set in motion a chain of events that rapidly spirals out of control.  How many encounters between African-Americans and white police officers follow a similar pattern?

* In the book from which the movie is adapted, Sheriff Teasle is a Korean war veteran who is bitter because he believes that Vietnam vets are given too much attention at the expense of Korean war vets whom the public has largely forgotten.  This motivation is never spelled out in the movie.

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Goodbye Trump!

 Now I won't be forced to say Merry Christmas anymore!*

*Because apparently that was one of his achievements.