The president’s outlandish behavior as Americans suffer has inspired horror and confusion while alienating alliesThe Guardian, Julian Borger in Washington, Helen Davidson in Sydney, Leyland Cecco in Toronto, Daniel Boffey in Brussels, Philip Oltermann in Berlin, Angela Giuffrida in Rome, Tom Phillips in Rio de Janeiro and Emmanuel Akinwotu in London; 15 May 2020
The Trump administration has repeatedly claimed that the US is “leading the world” with its response to the pandemic, but it does not seem to be going in any direction the world wants to follow.
Across Europe, Asia, Africa and Latin America, views of the US handling of the coronavirus crisis are uniformly negative and range from horror through derision to sympathy. Donald Trump’s musings from the White House briefing room, particularly his thoughts on injecting disinfectant, have drawn the attention of the planet.
“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,” the columnist Fintan O’Toole wrote in the Irish Times. “But there is one emotion that has never been directed towards the US until now: pity.”
The US has emerged as a global hotspot for the pandemic, a giant petri dish for the Sars-CoV-2 virus. As the death toll rises, Trump’s claims to global leadership have became more far-fetched. He told Republicans last week that he had had a round of phone calls with Angela Merkel, Shinzo Abe and other unnamed world leaders and insisted “so many of them, almost all of them, I would say all of them” believe the US is leading the way.
None of the leaders he mentioned has said anything to suggest that was true. At each milestone of the crisis, European leaders have been taken aback by Trump’s lack of consultation with them – when he suspended travel to the US from Europe on 12 March without warning Brussels, for example. A week later, politicians in Berlin accused Trump of an “unfriendly act” for offering “large sums of money” to get a German company developing a vaccine to move its research wing to the US.
The president’s abrupt decision to cut funding to the World Health Organization last month also came as a shock. The EU’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, a former Spanish foreign minister, wrote on Twitter: “There is no reason justifying this move at a moment when their efforts are needed more than ever to help contain & mitigate the coronavirus pandemic.”
A poll in France last week found Merkel to be far and away the most trusted world leader. Just 2% had confidence Trump was leading the world in the right direction. Only Boris Johnson and Xi Jinping inspired less faith.
A survey this week by the British Foreign Policy Group found 28% of Britons trusted the US to act responsibly on the world stage, a drop of 13 percentage points since January, with the biggest drop in confidence coming among Conservative voters.
Dacian Cioloș, a former prime minister of Romania who now leads the Renew Europe group in the European parliament, captured a general European view this week as the latest statistics on deaths in the US were reported.
“Post-truth communication techniques used by rightwing populism movements simply do not work to beat Covid-19,” he told the Guardian. “And we see that populism cost lives.”
Around the globe, the “America first” response pursued by the Trump administration has alienated close allies. In Canada, it was the White House order in April to halt shipments of critical N95 protective masks to Canadian hospitals that was the breaking point.
The Ontario premier, Doug Ford, who had previously spoken out in support of Trump on several occasions, said the decision was like letting a family member “starve” during a crisis.
“When the cards are down, you see who your friends are,” said Ford. “And I think it’s been very clear over the last couple of days who our friends are.”
In countries known for chronic problems of governance, there has been a sense of wonder that the US appears to have joined their ranks.
Esmir Milavić, an editor at Bosnia’s N1 TV channel, told viewers this week: “The White House is in utter dysfunction and doesn’t speak with one voice.”
Milavić said: “The vice-president is wearing a mask, while the president doesn’t; some staffers wear them, some don’t. Everybody acts as they please. As time passes, White House begins to look more and more like the Balkans.”
After Trump’s disinfectant comments, Beppe Severgnini, a columnist for Italy’s Corriere della Sera, said in a TV interview: “Trying to get into Donald Trump’s head is more difficult than finding a vaccine for coronavirus. First he decided on a lockdown and then he encouraged protests against the lockdown that he promoted. It’s like a Mel Brooks film.”
In several countries, the local health authorities have felt obliged to put out statements to counter “health advice” coming from the White House, concerning the ingestion of disinfectant and taking hydroxychloroquine, an anti-malarial drug found to be ineffective against Covid-19 and potentially lethal.
The Nigerian government put out a warning that there is no “hard evidence that chloroquine is effective in prevention or management of coronavirus infection” after three people were hospitalised from overdosing on the drug in Lagos. It was not enough to prevent a fivefold increase in the price of the drug, which is also used to treat lupus and rheumatoid arthritis.
Trump’s decision not to take part in a global effort to find a vaccine, and his abrupt severance of financial support to the WHO at the height of the pandemic, added outrage and prompted complaints that the US was surrendering its role of global leadership.
“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,” it said.
Nowhere in the world is the US response to the pandemic more routinely castigated than in China. It is hardly surprising. Trump has consistently pointed to Chinese culpability in failing to contain the outbreak in its early stages, and the pandemic has become the central battleground for global leadership between the established superpower and the emerging challenger.
There is a palpable sense of relief among Chinese state commentators that the US president’s antics have diverted some of the anger that would otherwise have been aimed at Beijing.
“Only by making Americans hate China can they make sure that the public might overlook the fact that Trump’s team is stained with the blood of Americans,” said an English-language Global Times editorial late last month.
Its editor, Hu Xijin, tweeted: “US system used to be appealing to many Chinese people. But through the pandemic, Chinese saw US government’s incompetence in outbreak control, disregard for life and its overt lies. Washington’s political halo has little left.”
China’s failure to cooperate fully with the WHO and its heavy-handed diplomacy has won Beijing few friends, despite its dispatch of medical assistance around the world. But the German news weekly Der Spiegel argued that Trump had single-handedly managed to spare Beijing the worst of the global consequences for its failings.
“For a while, it looked like the outbreak of the coronavirus would throw China back by light years,” the magazine argued in an editorial. “But now it is US president Donald Trump who has to spend day after day in a stuffy White House press room explaining to the world why his country can’t get a grip on the pandemic.”