‘America First’ in the time of COVID-19
We live amid a counterproductive nationalist backlash that is, unfortunately, not confined to Trump’s America; it extends to many countries. Now the spread of the new coronavirus – COVID-19 – gives isolationists another rationale for protecting insiders from outsiders. Health threats easily cross borders, and a pandemic makes international integration seem especially threatening.
Counterproductive “America first” policies have found one more justification. Of late, President Trump celebrated our “quick action in closing our borders” as responsible for low U.S. case numbers, although in reality, poor U.S. government planning and low availability of testing were more responsible.
Stunningly, as the stock market approached record declines, Trump also implied that the virus will boost the U.S. economy as Americans stay at home, spending more in the domestic economy. At the same time, the administration prepared an executive order to tighten “buy American” laws regarding medical supplies and equipment. Such actions risk increasing shortages of crucial medical supplies and encouraging protectionist laws abroad. Beyond these new steps, the fact that the U.S. government had already steeply increased tariff barriers on foreign medical equipment makes the impending scarcity of medical supplies even more problematic.
Wednesday evening, Trump went further, referring to the virus as a “foreign” virus, indiscriminately cutting down foreign travel, and blaming the Europeans for the spread of the virus, despite the likely possibility that the virus is equally common in the United States (since testing has been inadequate). In one bizarre yet fleeting moment, Trump appeared to shut down trade with Europe, although that turned out to be a misstatement.
These muddled and confused responses to the crisis are rooted in xenophobia and blame. They do not focus on the real public health needs of Americans (such as expanded testing and health care access) or the real economic needs of those in vulnerable situations.
While the domestic response to the virus is paramount, it is also foolish and counterproductive to blame foreigners for all our troubles, as this administration is so fond of doing. On the contrary, this very crisis illustrates the profound importance of global institutions, international cooperation, global talent flows and the longstanding merits of international trade and immigration.
For example, the most heartening feature of this looming health crisis has been the response of the global scientific community, which immediately began sharing information and furiously working on solutions. Transnational teams of scientists have worked with openness and trust, sharing information, research findings and a wealth of analysis that is absolutely critical in forming a policy response.
The World Health Organization has played an enormously important role, disseminating information and findings, and helping governments better plan their response to the crisis. As one example, teams of scientists visiting China were able to gather data and share information on the Chinese response, informing how countries like South Korea and Japan have responded to the crisis. As a consequence, those countries were better able to manage the crisis.
On the economic front, policymakers should learn lessons from the global response to the 2008 financial crisis, when central bankers and governments worked together to address issues of market liquidity, financial fragility and a looming global recession. During the financial crisis, policymakers avoided the mistakes of the Great Depression, when central banks too often pursued excessively contractionary policies for fear of losing capital flows to other countries, and when governments levied new trade barriers in hopes of directing demand toward home industries. These policies only succeeded in making the world poorer.
Despite today’s nationalist impulses, such mistakes need to avoided once again. International trade remains a vital part of a response to global health crises and a vital part of our economies. Countries need access to vital medical technology, medicines, medical supplies and basic necessities. Even large countries find it difficult or impossible to meet every production need on their own.
And international talent flows of researchers and scientists are crucial to both the present policy response and a healthier future. International students are the majority of U.S. graduate students in many scientific fields. Regardless of whether these students remain in the United States post-graduation or return home, the presence of international students in U.S. institutions of higher learning furthers global knowledge creation. In recent decades, a majority of the U.S. Nobel prizes in scientific fields (themselves the lion’s share of the global total) were won by foreign-born researchers working in the United States.
For all of these reasons, the rising tide of nationalism is particularly dangerous at the present moment. As we face both a longstanding climate crisis and today’s global health crisis, we begin from a position of mistrust. Trust and credibility are essential ingredients for countries working together in times of crisis. For this reason, the U.S. government should quickly and resolutely seek greater collaboration with other countries in managing this global crisis. Openness and transparency should be the norm in each and every instance.
Alongside strong domestic and health policies, international cooperation, information sharing and global scientific discovery are our best path forward in managing global pandemics. Borders and walls will not protect us, but learning from other countries just might.
Kimberly Clausing is a professor of economics at Reed College and author of “Open: The Progressive Case for Free Trade, Immigration, and Global Capital.”
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