“The Giftie Gie Us”: How Other Countries View America’s Response to COVID-19 — and Why It Matters

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O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us! — Robert Burns, “To a Louse”

On May 15, the venerable British newspaper, The Guardian, led with the shocking headline “World Looks On in Horror as Trump Flails Over Pandemic Despite Claims that US Leads the Way.” The article gives a good overview of how America’s recent handling of the way that American’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis has played on the world stage. If you don’t have time to read the article, the answer is: “it has not played well.” Trump’s boasts and bluster — which have not even gone over that well in the United States — have fallen flat abroad, where America’s responses have confused and horrified our allies — and delighted our enemies.

Irish columnist Fintan O’Toole came away with the article’s summative quote: “Over more than two centuries, the United States has stirred a very wide range of feelings in the rest of the world: love and hatred, fear and hope, envy and contempt, awe and anger. . . . But there is one emotion that has never been directed towards the US until now: pity.”

And this was two months ago — before most states tried to re-open, before cases in the United States shot up to 60,000 new cases a day, and before the daily fatality count began to climb back into the 1,000s after its earlier spikes in April and early May. When the Guardian wrote that the United States was being pitied, there was some room for optimism that the worst was behind us.

What about now? As many Asian nations have been able to declare victory over COVID-19, and as European nations are seeing new infections and fatalities plummet, the United States has seen a resurgence in cases that have dwarfed the original outbreak. The world’s responses have been equal parts angry and sad, with an overwhelming sense that America will not emerge from the crisis with anything like the leadership role in the world that it has enjoyed since the end of World War II.

Predictably, America’s two great rivals for global hegemony — China and Russia — have used America’s Coronavirus response to enhance their own positions. The China Daily, for example, ran a lengthy article by the Chinese Society for Human Rights under the headline “The COVID-19 Pandemic Magnifies the Crisis of ‘U.S.-Style Human Rights.’”

The sudden and unexpected outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic is the most serious global public health emergency that humanity has experienced since the end of World War II. It is also a “big test of human rights conditions” for all countries across the globe. The virus does not respect borders, nor is race or nationality relevant in the face of the disease. Given this, to honor our common commitment to human rights, governments of different countries are obliged to adopt scientific measures for the prevention and control of the virus and do their best to ensure the health and safety of their people.

Nevertheless, the U.S. government’s self-interested, short-sighted, inefficient, and irresponsible response to the pandemic has not only caused the tragedy in which about 2 million Americans became infected with the virus and more than 110,000 have died from it, but also caused the exposure and deterioration of the long-existing problems within the United States, such as a divisive society, the polarization between the rich and the poor, racial discrimination, and the inadequate protection of the rights and interests of vulnerable groups. This has led the American people into grave human rights disasters.

Another recent Chinese editorial continues the theme with other examples and argues that “the pandemic exposed the deep-seated and accumulated problems within American society: a poor health care system, inequality between citizens and a deep division between people, which is a “disaster” for the reputation of the US.”

Russia, too, has presented Trump’s Coronavirus response as a symptom of a greater American decline. Vladimir Putin, whose close relationship to Donald Trump has raised eyebrows (and blood pressures) around the world has been effective in leading the charge, as he did in an interview with the Moscow Times last month

Putin has rode out much of the coronavirus pandemic from his residence outside Moscow and has drawn criticism for keeping a relatively low profile during the pandemic. Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin was appointed to lead the government’s coronavirus task force, and there have been reports of friction between him and Putin over Russia’s strategy to deal with the coronavirus.

In the interview, Putin connected the protests in the U.S. to poor handling of the pandemic, pointing to “deep-seated internal crises.”

“It shows there are problems. Things connected to the fight with the coronavirus have shone a spotlight on general problems.”

He contrasted the virus situation in the U.S. and Russia, saying that while “we are exiting the coronavirus situation steadily with minimal losses, God willing, in the States it isn’t happening that way.”

Like China, Russia has presented America’s Coronavirus response as a symptom of general decay. These are, of course, the talking points of dictators jockeying for power. But they are not implausible charges, and they echo with what is being said all over the world. The argument that the American response ignored science, exacerbated divisions, and relied on an ineffective health care system may very well become the standard global narrative that defines the decline of American power in the post-pandemic world.

The Russian media has been especially hard on the United States for abandoning the World Health Organization in April.

Deputy Russian Foreign Minister Sergi Ryabkov called the U.S. move a “very selfish approach” and “very disturbing.”

“(We) call on the U.S. to abandon further attacks on the WHO and pursue a responsible policy that will not destroy the framework of international cooperation in the biomedical field — but rather strengthen this partnership and create the basis for its further improvement,” he said.

“This is a blow to this organization at a time when the international community is relying on it — and this is a step that deserves to be condemned,” the state-run TASS news agency quoted Ryabkov as saying.

Americans should not ignore the power of this argument. By abandoning the organization on the front lines of the fight against Coronavirus in poor and developing nations, the Trump Administration sent a strong message to much of the World that the United States does not care about their struggles. Many of America’s traditional allies feel abandoned, and both Russia and China will use these feelings of abandonment to build their own power base. Consider the words this week of Indian columnist Prabir Purkayastha:

Trump’s excuse for withdrawing from the WHO is that it did not do its job well on the COVID-19 pandemic, and was soft on China. Condemning Trump’s move, Devi Sridhar, Professor of Global Public Health at the University of Edinburgh and advisor to the Scottish government, tweeted, “Donald Trump’s withdrawal of U.S. from the WHO ignores the key role the agency plays in outbreak prevention and response. Not only for COVID, but also for polio, malaria, TB, plague, yellow fever, cholera, Zika virus, and neglected tropical diseases.”

She also pointed out that it is because of such international agreements that the WHO received information from China on the novel pathogen on December 30, 2019 and declared the highest alarm bell the world has — a Public Health Emergency of International Concern — on January 30, 2020.

Trump is trying to pass the buck to the WHO for his administration’s abject failure to prepare the US for the COVID-19 pandemic and its handling of the epidemic. The US Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), could not even prepare a proper test-kit for two months for detecting SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes the infection. China, Germany and Korea, to name a few, all had working test kits well before the CDC. One of this, the Charite Berlin’s test kit, has been supplied by the WHO to more than 129 countries. WHO delivered this test kit to 57 countries, well before the CDC, with a budget three times that of the WHO’s, could get its test kits to work.

In Brazil, where the virus is also spiking, the feelings about Trump abandoning the WHO are running very high, are much the same, as an editorial in the Estado de São Paulo — quoted in the Guardian — demonstrates

If there is any world leader who can be accused of handling the current crisis badly, it is Donald Trump, whose initial disdain for Covid-19 may have cost thousands of Americans their lives,” an editorial in the conservative Estado de São Paulo newspaper said last month.

The newspaper said Trump had only decided to take Covid seriously after finding himself “cornered by the facts” — and expressed shock at his decision to halt WHO funding.

“Even by the standards of his behaviour, the level of impudence is astonishing for the holder of an office that, until just a few years ago, was a considered reference in leadership for the democratic world.”

Throughout the world, people express both surprise and horror that wearing masks — which has been part of the containment strategy for every country that has dealt with COVID-19 successfully — is even controversial in the United States. A recent editorial in the Korea Times puts it this way.

The difference between the countries that have responded successfully to the outbreak and those that fail is largely due to leadership. Korea and other countries, especially those in East Asia, that dealt with the situation well, recognized early the seriousness of the COVID-19 threat and took decisive actions, from mandating mask wearing to testing. Their response was largely based on their experience dealing with similar disease outbreaks such as SARS in 2003.

In contrast, the Trump administration in the U.S. sought to deny that COVID-19 posed any serious danger. This reaction reflected President Trump’s reluctance to acknowledge the impact of the disease. He wishes that it would just go away because it threatens his re-election chances this year. COVID-19 has become a highly politicized issue in the U.S., with Trump and his Republican supporters blaming scientists for exaggerating the severity of the disease and implying they are doing so in hopes of the Democrats winning in November. Even as simple an issue as wearing a face mask has become a bone of contention.

Much the same frustration comes from India, where Bloomsburg’s New Dehli columnist Mihir Sharma laments that the United States had the resources to combat the Coronavirus successfully but missed the opportunity:

Seen from India, the chaotic and patchwork approach the U.S. has taken to battling the Covid-19 pandemic is both confusing and familiar. Here, we have replaced the world’s most stringent lockdown with a largely uncontrolled reopening. The shutdown did not really manage to bend the curve downwards, as happened in Europe. But, unlike developed countries in Europe, we believe we simply can’t afford to close down the economy for too long. What doesn’t make sense is why the U.S. is doing the same thing. Congress did its job, as many U.S. workers received the aid they need to get by for now. In India, we can’t reach the vast majority of migrant workers, among others, through our welfare system.

What looks familiar is the strange patchwork approach that comes from having powerful state administrations making most decisions. Yet, while some Indian states have been much more careful than others about contact tracing and quarantining, none is being openly careless or dismissive. This, combined with a strange machismo about mask-wearing that seems to be spreading through parts of the U.S., makes the country look like a much more dangerous place to be than Europe or parts of East Asia.

Perhaps the most disturbing reports, though, come from some of America’s strongest allies in Western Europe. At the end of June, a poll commissioned by the European Council on Foreign Relations contains a lot of bad news for the United States about its future leadership role.

A poll of thousands of Europeans has found that the majority have an increasingly negative view of the U.S. as a result of the coronavirus crisis, with just 2% of Europeans surveyed expressing the view that the U.S. was a “helpful” ally in the fight against Covid-19.

The poll of 11,000 respondents across nine European countries, commissioned by the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), showed that in almost every country surveyed, there was an increasingly negative perception of the U.S.


“Europeans have digested the fact that the U.S. is no longer necessarily a friend for Europe in times of need. As Germany takes over the Presidency of the EU, next month, this important shift in public opinion towards the U.S. may push European governments to pursue a more independent line in the rebuilding of the international order after Covid-19.”

The trans-Atlantic alliance between the United States and Western Europe — the community of nations that vanquished both fascism and communism and, however imperfectly, spread the ideal of liberal democracy across the globe, has never been in greater danger than it is now under the leadership of Donald Trump. The COVID-19 crisis did not create the tension — Donald Trump’s embrace of Russia and disdain for NATO had already accomplished much of the damage before the outbreak. But the American response to a global pandemic may make that damage irreparable.

In the eyes of the rest of the world, our president has consistently downplayed the effects of COVID-19, undercut the world’s response, allowed its own cases to skyrocket while refusing to take simple precautions, plunged the largest economy in the world into a deep recession, and refused to take any responsibility for its actions. Other countries are paying attention, and both Russia and China will make sure that these narratives continue to circulate long after the virus is gone. The United States may very well never recover its leadership role in the world after failing to lead during our generation’s greatest global crisis.

Written by

Michael Austin is a former English professor and current academic administrator. He is the author of We Must Not Be Enemies: Restoring America’s Civic Tradition

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