US officials thought their British counterparts “were crazy” to aspire to herd immunity as part of Boris Johnson’s initial policy to deal with the coronavirus, according to a new book on the global response to the pandemic.
As the scale of the threat became increasingly clear in January and February 2020, Donald Trump administration officials tried to convince him to take the threat seriously, despite the personal assurances he had been given. Chinese President Xi Jinping that it was under control. .
But they were even more surprised by the approach taken in the UK. In a book to be published next Tuesday, Aftershocks: Pandemic Politics and the End of the Old International Order, British health experts at the time are described as “strangely pessimistic about their ability to defeat the virus”, rejecting measures as a prohibition. in mass meetings.
“We thought they were crazy. We told them it would be an absolutely devastating approach to dealing with the pandemic, ”a US official told the authors, Thomas Wright, a foreign affairs expert at the Brookings Institution, and Colin Kahl, who is now undersecretary of defense for policy. “We thought they were crazy and they thought we were crazy. It turns out that, in the end, we were a little more right than they were. “
It was Trump who was persuaded to change course first, reluctantly agreeing to a three-week shutdown on March 11, at a time when 150,000 people were attending the Cheltenham horse races in Britain.
But Trump and his secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, were to shape America’s international response around wanting China to be punished, rather than building an international coalition to contain the spread of the virus.
Trump felt he had been betrayed by Xi. “These guys have screwed us and they screwed me personally,” he told his staff, according to the authors. He began to insist that the disease be referred to as “the China virus.”
The book also describes the collapse in attempts to build a concerted G7 response to the outbreak. France, which was handing over the presidency of the rotating group to the United States, sought guidance from Washington on the administration’s intentions, but surprised French officials “that the White House had no ideas of its own.”
Paris asked the administration for a call between the G7 leaders. The White House agreed, but only on the condition that the French organize it. Then, when the G7 foreign ministers met by videoconference on March 26, they could not even agree on a joint statement due to Pompeo’s insistence that references to Covid-19 be replaced by the “virus of Wuhan ”.
Johnson and French President Emmanuel Macron backed Trump’s call for a G7 summit in person at Camp David in the summer, which the US president saw as a way to show leadership and show that things were getting back to normal. normal.
But the plan was torpedoed by Angela Merkel’s decision not to attend. According to Aftershocks, the refusal was motivated only in part by the German chancellor’s concern about the health risks of an in-person summit. She also thought her mere presence would be counterproductive to reaching a deal due to Trump’s viscerally hostile reaction to her.
“She was the red cape of her bull,” the book said. “When they spoke, he was derailed. All I had to do was be in his presence. “
Merkel told Trump of her decision not to go to Camp David on May 28 and he reacted furiously, yelling and then hanging her up. The president then announced that the summit would be canceled and questioned the relevance of the G7, taking the occasion to repeat his earlier calls for Russia to be readmitted.
For the UK, the suggestion of Russia’s return was a red line, while French officials concluded that the administration had no intention of generating an international response to the pandemic.
“With Europeans now completely alienated from the United States, for all practical purposes, the G7 ceased to exist,” argue Wright and Kahl. “As Covid-19 spread to all parts of the world in 2020, it would be every nation for itself.”