Paul Brandus: Coronavirus puts globalization on the ballot in November

Associated Press
President Donald Trump speaks during a news conference about the coronavirus in the Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House, Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2020, in Washington.

If you watched President Trump’s Oval Office speech Wednesday night, he referred to the coronavirus as a “foreign virus.” This was no accident. The 12-minute address, largely written by Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and hardcore anti-immigration advisor Stephen Miller, was an attempt to portray the virus, which originated in the central Chinese city of Wuhan—as yet another export that we don’t need and must be stopped at the border.

Related: Here’s what Wall Street analysts are saying about Trump’s speech

This supports a very Trumpian theory, perhaps the Trumpiest theory of all, namely that globalization is bad. The world is out to get us, screw us, do us harm. Treaties are one-sided and meant, above all, to rip us off. The Paris climate pact, the P5+1 Iran nuclear deal with Iran, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, NAFTA—it’s all one scam, one hoax, one ripoff after another. Now comes a virus, a “foreign virus,” from far away that’s shutting down our economy, sparked a nasty bear market and instilled fear and a nationwide run on Purell.

Those Chinese devils are so clever.

Xenophobia and America-first nationalism are pillars of Trump’s philosophy. It got him to the White House, his base loves him for it, and has stuck by him from day one. You can expect the president to keep playing up these themes all the way to election day. Foreigners bad. Me good. With the stock market SPX, -9.51% crumbling and a recession looming, it’s about all he has.

But it is fair to take a step back from the politics and examine some facts. It’s probably no coincidence that as globalization has brought the world closer together in recent decades, the number of infectious disease incidents has been rising. We shouldn’t be surprised that viruses spread faster and further than ever. Trade is (or was) bigger than ever, more people travel internationally (or did) than ever, and so forth. Which may help explain the rise of infectious diseases, says Peter Daszak of EcoHealth Alliance,” a nonprofit research group that tracks global outbreaks. “They’re increasing exponentially,” he tells the Wall Street Journal.

Think of it: In this still young century alone, we’ve had the SARS scare in 2003, swine flu in 2009, MERS in 2012, Ebola from 2014 to 2016, the Zika virus in 2015 and Dengue fever in 2016. In other words, these scares are increasingly constant. Daszak—who says ominously that “we’re going to get hit by a much bigger one sometime i the next two years,” estimates that the cost of future pandemics could cost up to $23.5 trillion by 2050, including lost economic activity and property, as well as the value of lost human lives.

So laugh all you want at Trump, but this is a legitimate issue and a new angle—and a scary and expensive one at that—in the ongoing debate over globalization. In general, the president is anti-globalization—he wants to build walls and close borders. But Americans are only about 5% of the world’s population; of course we have to engage with the other 95%. Our economic security and physical security depend on it. Which is why former Vice President Joe Biden, who will be the Democratic nominee, wants to reverse Trump’s reversals on the treaties and agreements I mentioned above.

The question that I have for both men: How can the federal government strengthen its ability to respond quickly and robustly to the kind of future pandemics that may be coming? What role can the private sector play? And how can we work more efficiently with other countries and global institutions to keep people safe? Trade and travel aren’t going away they’re only going to get bigger.

This should be a major issue at one of the three presidential debates that are scheduled for this fall. There’s a possibility that like Richard Nixon in 1972, Trump won’t show up, and if that’s the case that’s too bad. Americans need and deserve to hear from both men about how they think America should engage with the rest of the world for the next four years, not only on trade, climate and nuclear weapons—but on the silent but deadly issue of global pandemics that are increasing in both number, and—perhaps—severity.