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How COVID-19 Will Change Global Perceptions of the U.S.: Perspectives From an American Student

US President Donald Trump, flanked by Vice President Mike Pence, speaks during the daily briefing on the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, in the Brady Briefing Room at the White House on March 26, 2020, in Washington, DC. JIM WATSON / AFP

“At this point, we’re probably better off spending spring break in Wuhan.”

As a college freshman who returned home for spring break on March 6th, I fully expected to return by the 16th. Within days, however, updates cascaded upon me and my peers at other institutions. Dozens of universities began to suspend classroom learning and go virtual, including Georgetown on March 13th. In just one week, the promise of a thrilling end to my freshman year of college transformed into months of social isolation and classroom lectures on Zoom. However, it wasn’t until I received a text from a friend with the words, “We’re probably better off spending spring break in Wuhan,” that I realized the full gravity of this situation, not just for global health, but for the U.S.’s future image in the eyes of the international community.

The COVID-19 pandemic has turned lives across the world upside down, radically shifting daily norms, rocking the international economy, and testing the limits of healthcare networks and governance worldwide. Its presence in the U.S. has skyrocketed dramatically over a matter of weeks and now seems to be the sole topic of discussion across television, newspapers, and social media. At the center of that commotion are President Trump and the U.S. government’s response, which has exacerbated concerns rather than relieved them. The administration has downplayed the seriousness of the virus, failed to prepare tests (with less than 500 tests conducted nationwide over February), and taken inadequate steps to stock critical supplies like masks, hospital beds, and ventilators. The list of transgressions goes on, but it is compounded by a new strategy launched by the Trump administration: an attempt to target China for this pandemic.

What began with President Trump referring to COVID-19 as the “Chinese Virus” ( against the wishes of his speechwriters, it seems), is slowly escalating into a larger U.S. assault on China for its complicity in the pandemic. A cable distributed amongst State Department officials lays out a coordinated communications plan that emphasizes China’s role in a “cover-up” of the virus, leading to the pandemic. Moreover, senators like Tom Cotton have launched YouTube ads attacking China and calling for them to “foot the bill” of the pandemic, while conservative media outlets like the Heritage Foundation have published similar pieces condemning Beijing.

The sentiments of my fellow students lead me to believe that it will radically shift the U.S.’s international image as well, especially in Africa.

However, China is now close to overcoming COVID-19, recently announcing no new local infections for the first time since December. They are the first country to have effectively slowed the spread of the virus through a rigorous top-down response effort. In turn, they have flipped their overwhelmingly negative image from January and February, when reports unveiled Beijing suppressing whistleblowers and information about the virus, to a positive one of a country that was able to abate a crisis.

With this newfound status, they are coordinating and launching an international aid campaign to help other nations stop COVID, by providing medical supplies, expertise and support, and on-the-ground assistance. This is especially prevalent in Africa, where China has recently begun a massive aid campaign. They have sent Chinese doctors to the frontlines in Kenya, distributed tons of medical supplies, and organized remote conferences with medical leaders across the continent. This coincides with a coordinated media effort across not only Chinese state-run media, such as Xinhua, but also popular African media sources in Ghana, Kenya, and South Africa.

As a student studying international relations in the center of Washington, D.C., I was taken aback to hear several of my peers openly share a common sentiment: anything could be better than the American response to this pandemic, including China. These are peers who I’ve often heard condemn China for its human rights and anti-democratic abuses. Given that, I can only imagine what sentiments must be like outside of the United States. While the administration’s “Chinese Virus” campaign has riled up people across Trump’s domestic base effectively, they do little to influence foreign perceptions, especially as China backs up its narrative change with tangible aid and action.

To me, China is currently playing the role of a true international leader, and it’s going to pay off. Similar to the United States during the 2014 Ebola outbreak, they are beginning to coordinate the international COVID-19 response, placing their robust supply chains at the center of relief efforts and providing their expertise as the gold-standard across the world, especially in Africa. While the U.S. does not have the same supply capacity as China, it excels as an internationally recognized leader and cutting-edge science and technology developer. The only way out is for Washington is to embrace this role by quickly taking action domestically to stymie the crisis, working with Beijing to lead the response, and heading vaccine development efforts. Unfortunately, however, this administration is instead fumbling its domestic efforts and deflecting with an ill-conceived smear campaign against Beijing.

People across the world, including my fellow students, are describing this pandemic as paradigm-shifting, poised to change the world as we know it. This crisis will go on for months, and its impact will stretch for years, if not decades. The sentiments of my fellow students lead me to believe that it will radically shift the U.S.’s international image as well, especially in Africa. China already has a deep ethos across African states as a financial hub and player deeply vested in African development; this pandemic could solidify it as the undisputed leader on the global playing field.

Atharv Gupta is pursuing a B.S. in Foreign Service at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service, with a Science, Technology, and International Affairs major alongside minors in Mandarin Chinese and International Development.

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