US President Donald Trump has told a town hall meeting that a vaccine could be ready in weeks, but medical experts say it will take longer. Photo: AFP/Mandel Ngan

Despite his administration’s many failures in responding to the Covid-19 crisis, US President Donald Trump is rebranding himself as the tough, indispensable leader America needs. At the center of his new pitch: his “travel ban” against China back in February.  According to Trump, but for his “early” and “decisive” actions, “thousands and thousands of lives” would have been lost.

“Everybody was against it. Almost everybody, I would say, was just absolutely against it…. I made a decision to close off to China that was weeks early…. And I must say, doctors – nobody wanted to make that decision at the time.” 

However, Trump’s “travel ban” was more about taking a swipe at China than about keeping America safe. 

Scientists have long known that travel restrictions by themselves are rarely effective in stopping the spread of communicable diseases. In a systemic study of recent epidemics in 2014, the World Health Organization declared that travel restrictions are usually not recommended because of high economic and social costs and limited effects.

To have a real impact on the trajectory of diseases, nations and regions should focus on concrete on-the-ground efforts such as early detection, quarantine, contact tracing, and a program to effect behavioral changes such as hand washing, covering coughs and sneezes, keeping social distance, and self-isolation.

It is telling that despite its proximity to China, South Korea – often hailed in the West as the gold standard in coronavirus control – was able to limit its outbreak without erecting “travel bans” against China. Instead, Korea took to flattening its curve with swift action, broad testing, aggressive contact tracing, and widespread social compliance and support regarding mask-wearing, quarantine, and social distancing.

China’s actions were also telling. On January 23, Chinese authorities shocked the world by closing off Wuhan, a city of 11 million. Yet the shocking viral counts did not decrease until China embarked on an ambitious, all-out effort of testing, contact tracing, and quarantining. 

On January 24, Trump tweeted, “China has been working very hard to contain the Coronavirus. The United States greatly appreciates their efforts and transparency. It will all work out well. In particular, on behalf of the American People, I want to thank President Xi!”

Unfortunately, Trump did not heed the lessons from Asia. Instead he relied on his border-control, “America First” ideology to respond to the coronavirus crisis, with dire consequences for the nation.

On January 30, the day before Trump announced his “travel ban” on China, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross publicly gloated how the outbreak in China would hasten the repatriation of jobs back to America. Countless times throughout February, Trump announced that America was in “great shape.” As late as February 26, Trump insisted that the US was “very, very ready” and lashed out at his critics for “doing everything possible to make the Coronavirus look as bad as possible, including panicking markets.” 

On February 28, in a political rally in South Carolina, Trump dismissed concerns about the coronavirus as a “new hoax.” On March 9, he was still comparing the virus to the “common flu” and declaring that life and economy would “go on” as usual.

It would not be until mid-March – when hospitals began to saturate with patients, doctors began running out of basic medical supplies, and cities and states across the nation began shutting down – that Trump would go on national TV to acknowledge a crisis. It would not be until early April before working, reliable test kits, a prerequisite to controlling any epidemic, would become available across the nation.  

Bumbling into April as doctors and nurses across the nation still cried out for basic medical supplies and equipment, the Trump administration anguished over whether accepting equipment from China might be too politically unsavory.

It is truly tragic to see an America that is but a shadow of its former self. “Make America Great Again” Trump has not.

In an e-mail on March 12 – the day after Trump went on national television finally to acknowledge a coronavirus crisis – the White House declared: “’Some 150,000 illegal immigrants from 72 nations with cases of the coronavirus have been apprehended or deemed inadmissible from entering the United States since November,’ according to officials. These apprehensions underscore the need for border security and proper vetting.”

So here we are, in the midst of a major global crisis, and the president of the United States is still busy touting his border ideology to keep “illegal immigrants,” “crimes” – and now coronavirus – at bay.

Americans must wake up and see Trump’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic for what it is – a farce. His “travel ban” was always more about taking a swipe at China than keeping America safe.

It has recently come to light that a US intelligence report had been circulating about a potentially “cataclysmic” contagion in China as early as last November.

What has Trump done since November to prepare?

In addition, according to a New York Times report, between December 24 2019 – when China first identified a mysterious series of pneumonia cases – and February 2 – when Trump enacted his “travel ban” – at least 430,000 people have arrived in the United States on direct flights from China. 

Furthermore, since Trump’s “travel ban,” another 40,000 travelers – mostly American citizens, residents and their relatives – have arrived from China with uneven and spotty screening and with no or limited follow-up testing and contact tracing

How can Trump still boast that his “travel ban” constituted a “decisive,” “early” response to the pandemic?

To make matters even worse, reports from California and Italy suggest that the coronavirus may have already been well established in the US and Europe in December or earlier. How could the Trump administration – with the vast resources of the US government at its disposal – have missed this?

There will be a time when the world gets together to assess how it can prepare better for the next pandemic. But for now, the signs are ominous that things will get worse before they get better.

Trump’s recent defunding of the WHO is inexcusable. Many Americans are still more invigorated to see Trump take on China than the virus. 

Americans need to learn that no nation is an island. The US is healthier when the rest of the world is healthy and more prosperous when the rest of the world is prosperous. 

Many Americans voted for an America First-touting Trump four years ago because they wanted to see a better and more prosperous America. After four false years and now a disastrous epidemic, it is time Americans regroup and rise up to rebuild America again.

Allen Yu

Allen Yu is an IP attorney in Silicon Valley and a blogger at hiddenharmonies.org. His articles on IP and technology law have appeared in the University of Southern California Law Review, Cardozo Law Review, Harvard Journal of Law and Technology, and IDEA: the Intellectual Property Law Review. He holds a JD from Harvard Law School and a DEngr from UCLA School of Engineering and Applied Science.