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The U.S. is Falling Behind in the Race for the COVID-19 Narrative

Few names are as closely associated with philanthropy as Bill Gates. As the second richest person alive, he has used his immense wealth to improve global health through his charitable organization, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The Foundation gave over $4 billion in grants in 2017, making it one of the largest privately-funded foundations in the world. It is largely focused on African health, having invested billions towards stopping HIV and Malaria, improving infectious disease response, and building healthcare capacity. With COVID-19 beginning to spread in African nations, this charitable giving should now be more important than ever.

Microsoft’s chairman Bill Gates, one of world’s richest man and high profile aid donors, signs visitor’s register at the Ahentia Health Centre in the Awutu Senya district, central region in Ghana on March 26, 2013. AFP PHOTO/PIUS UTOMI EKPEI
PIUS UTOMI EKPEI / AFP

Jack Ma: China’s New Soft Power Star in Africa

However, it appears that years of Bill Gates’ work is being left behind by another billionaire ramping up their engagement with African nations: Jack Ma. While many associate the Chinese entrepreneur with the Alibaba empire, he has been increasing his charitable giving in Africa over the past decade through the Jack Ma Foundation. In late 2019, he launched the Africa Netpreneur Prize Initiative (ANPI), which awarded $1 million to 10 entrepreneurs from across Africa. Now, the Foundation is center-stage across global media for its COVID-19 efforts, as they have sent thousands of protective suits and millions of testing kits and masks to all 54 African countries, as well as across Europe and Asia.

The Jack Ma Foundation is the most visible aspect of China’s overall “Mask Diplomacy” program,  which also includes thousands of smaller Chinese businesses and factories. These actions have earned Jack Ma, and by extension China, a great deal of praise, including tweets from the Presidents of Ethiopia and Rwanda. This aid has been amplified through the bullhorn of China’s coordinated media structures, as Beijing has aligned its state media organizations to push this goodwill narrative. Given the waves that Chinese aid is causing, it has clearly been effective.

Image via Alibaba

However, this aid pales in comparison to decades of Bill Gates’ and American investments into African health. For decades, the U.S. has been an undisputed leader in building African health networks, as they’ve invested billions across the continent towards fighting HIV/AIDS, Malaria, and other infectious diseases. Why has the U.S. recently fallen behind in this international narrative?

I see two primary reasons.

Firstly, as I mentioned before, China has conducted their media machine incredibly well to amplify their aid. China has been able to leverage its dominance of PPE manufacturing towards international support, especially now that it has domestically overcome COVID-19. Their state media coordinated messaging took this strategy to an even greater height. This is especially remarkable given global sentiments just two months ago, with many placing fault on the Chinese for suppressing early information about COVID-19, allowing it to spread.

Secondly, the U.S. seems to face the exact opposite situation as China. Given the growing severity of the COVID-19 crisis domestically, sending medical supplies abroad right now would be a nightmare for the current administration, especially as it is an election year. Even if it wanted to, the U.S. could not match China in material donations or production. Therefore, I was personally surprised to see the amount of aid the U.S. is still sending internationally. A recent fact sheet from the State Department titled “The United States Is Leading the Humanitarian and Health Assistance Response to COVID-19” announces hundreds of millions in aid across 64 countries in Africa, Europe, South America, Asia, and the Middle East. The fact sheet also shares the billions the U.S. has spent in each of these countries over the last 20 years. USAID recently published a similar graphic displaying the $1.1 billion they’ve invested into global health security since 2009. Despite this, the media is still relatively quiet on U.S. international aid, largely due to the U.S. ‘s burgeoning crisis at home.

What, Then, Does an Effective American Response Look Like?

Assuming that the Trump administration aims to improve their global standing, what short and long-term strategies might Washington employ to bolster their image?

In the short-term, there are several possible strategies that the U.S. might take, each with benefits and drawbacks. The largest obstacle to any response is the crisis at home. The government cannot increase their engagement abroad while the crisis worsens drastically in states like New York, New Jersey and Washington; to do so would incite mass criticism from U.S. citizens. Therefore, a short-term strategy will likely exist on two wavelengths. The first is that the government will market its domestic response as an international model. The second is that the government will continue propagating its anti-China rhetoric.

Firstly, the U.S. is beginning to ramp up its own COVID-19 response, having rapidly increased its testing capacity and constructed a 3000+ bed hospital in mere days. Once positive results begin rolling in, the administration will begin coordinating media messaging across government agencies, highlighting their successes as well as better spotlighting U.S. international aid. If the U.S. markets its response well, they will recapture a positive global image, even if they cannot keep up with China in material aid. Philanthropists like Bill Gates and private corporations fit into this media U-turn as well.

The second short-term strategy that the Trump administration will likely take is a continuation of its attacks on the Chinese for enabling COVID-19’s spread. The strategy thus far, which has been to antagonize China by calling it the “Chinese virus” along with some minor messaging guidelines in the State Department, is unlikely to make any significant headway within the international community. A safer and more effective alternative is to call China out on its current transgressions, such as reports of the faulty medical equipment it has sent to Europe, or its recent use of Twitter bots to shift public opinion in Italy. However, as we’ll soon see, there is still a question as to whether or not this is beneficial in the long-term.

The long-term strategy here is far more important, consisting of two parts. The first part revolves around U.S. development of a COVID-19 vaccine. Even if this vaccine does not reach other nations due to domestic U.S. demand and manufacturing difficulties, its production will signal U.S. scientific and technological leadership. Reports have recently come out that China may begin international testing of their vaccine. However, even if China develops a vaccine first, the extensive American FDA drug testing procedure will likely ensure more credibility for an American vaccine. However, this will take several months and there is little the Trump administration can do to leverage it right now.

The second part of the U.S. strategy should capitalize on one of its largest strengths: international coalition building. As other developed nations begin to pass the bulk of their COVID-19 crises, it is up to the U.S. to lead the international response through already-active global institutions such as the World Health Organization. As COVID-19 continues to spread, it will especially hurt African countries with far weaker health institutions and larger impoverished populations. This is a chance for U.S. leadership to shine once again, especially as it coordinates with developed European nations as opposed to China’s thus-far unilateral aid approach. Therein lies the problem with an anti-China short-term media strategy. There is no hope for an international response without China, which houses the supply chains necessary to support the COVID-19 response. It is unclear whether this long-term strategy is a priority for the Trump administration, which seems more inclined towards bashing China to distract from COVID-19 related issues at home.

The damage that COVID-19 has wrought thus far has fundamentally changed the global landscape. It could unravel decades of American leadership in African health, replacing Bill Gates’ impact with the timely entry of Jack Ma. If the United States hopes to maintain its authority in African health development, it must rise to the challenge China poses, beginning with their media narrative. These short-term and long-term strategies all hinge on the Trump administration leveraging their domestic response into an example for the rest of the world to follow. Recent improvements in the U.S.’s pandemic response may be a positive sign, but only time will tell where COVID-19 leaves the U.S. in Africa: an ever-present leader or a faint memory pushed aside by the Chinese.

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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