Editor’s Note: David A. Andelman, executive director of The Red Lines Project, is a contributor to CNN, where his columns won the Deadline Club Award for best opinion writing. Author of “A Shattered Peace: Versailles 1919 and the Price We Pay Today,” and the forthcoming “A Red Line in the Sand: Diplomacy, Strategy and a History of Wars That Almost Happened,” he was formerly a foreign correspondent for The New York Times and CBS News in Europe and Asia. Follow him on Twitter @DavidAndelman. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
Europe is thinking seriously of barring all Americans from visiting over what many abroad see as an all but unchecked spike in Covid-19.
If the US fails to meet the criteria being considered by the European Commission, member states could treat Americans as they might people from Russia and Brazil, driving the US even deeper into pariah status. Travelers from China, the nation where the pandemic began, would likely not be banned. Even if the US somehow manages to avoid a blanket ban, its arrival on such a list is a recognition of just how bad off America is and how it looks to the rest of the world.
How much better off are Europe or China and how did they get there? They all made the hard choices early and even now are prepared to act quickly and surely to stamp out any hotspots that might emerge and threaten the broader welfare.
Take Germany. This week, after most of the country had emerged from a universal quarantine, the nation placed the town of Gütersloh and its 103,000 people in sudden lockdown after more than 1,550 workers in a meat processing plant there tested positive.
By contrast, when a similar outbreak occurred in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, the state’s governor, Kristi L. Noem, resisted even a stay-at-home order, suggesting she was simply following the lead of President Donald Trump, believing individuals, not the government are “able to make the best decisions for their families.”
While a decision to close a nation’s frontiers is technically a matter for each country, as one EU diplomat told CNN, “The criteria will be focused on circulation of the virus,” and that, generally, the European Commission in Brussels is looking to keep out travelers from countries “where the virus is circulating most actively.”
Indeed, the virus has been circulating, largely unchecked, in many parts of the United States, as well as Brazil and Russia, with little or no effort to control the spread or sustain a coherent and effective campaign against it. By contrast, it seems that so far, with some scattered exceptions, most European nations have been led throughout this crisis by individuals who govern by informed example, accepting hard truths and not ignorant dreams.
In France, my 43-year-old son for months has been wearing a mask every time he leaves his apartment in central Paris. So does French President Emanuel Macron, who has made wearing face masks an act of national pride that has been recognized, even celebrated, around the world.
The contrasts with the US – where President Trump refuses to wear a mask in public and where many governors are reopening their states even in the face of rising numbers of coronavirus cases – are stunning. When Macron visited the Pierre Ronsard grade school at the height of the pandemic in early May, he pointedly wore a dark blue face mask emblazoned with the red, white and blue of the French flag and that he proudly proclaimed had been made in France by knitwear maker Chanteclair (retail price $8.30) and that he observed had been tested by the French military.
So, on Tuesday, World Health Organization figures showed, when the United States recorded 27,575 new cases and 308 new deaths, France, a nation one-fifth the size, posted just 325 new cases and 20 deaths.
China, too, whose citizens will apparently be welcome in Europe where Americans may be shunned, has been revealed as willing, after some early catastrophic missteps, to make hard choices — slamming lockdowns in a swath of Beijing after registering just 137 new infections in a few days.
The refusal of President Trump to sustain any blanket shutdown, or even to wear a mask, has made a cavalier attitude toward the most lethal pandemic in a century standard in vast areas of the United States even where the spread of the coronavirus is most rampant. At the same time, Trump is the only national leader to threaten a pullout from the World Health Organization, based in Geneva, the body directly tasked with monitoring and developing a strategy to contain the pandemic.
None of this has been lost anywhere in Europe — among the general public and in the halls of the European Union where the decisions are being made on which countries might be barred from entry to the 27 member nations. So, it is hardly surprising that the United States is being lumped in with Russia and Brazil — both countries where the executive has been either largely absent as a leader or all but criminally ignorant.
Again, here the numbers tell the story. According to WHO figures, Brazil has registered a total of 1,085,038 cases, second only to the United States with more than 2,268,000. Russia is in the third spot globally with just under 600,000.
Moreover, the numbers in the US, Brazil and Russia are growing faster than in any other country on earth.
Yet the leaders of Russia and Brazil have demonstrated equal disdain for the toll the coronavirus is having on their nation. Ahead of the much-anticipated national referendum on constitutional reforms on Thursday that would effectively make him president-for-life, Putin celebrated his efforts, which he told his people in a nationwide address Tuesday, saved “tens of thousands of lives.”
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Then he presided over a vast military parade through Red Square celebrating the defeat of Nazi Germany 75 years ago.
In Brazil, even worse. President Jair Bolsonaro was ordered by a federal judge on Tuesday to wear a face mask in public, but his hand-picked attorney general said he was “studying all the appropriate measures to reverse the injunction.” This as his supporters have charged the Congress and courts are seeking to curb his power and that the economic impact of shutdowns would be worse than the virus.
Sadly, it seems, the leaders of none of these three nations seem prepared to reverse their headlong dash toward disaster in efforts to retain their hold on power. America was once a beacon of intelligent management of catastrophes, whose leaders could be counted on for a steady hand and innovative solutions, but no longer.
All too many Americans still take their cue from a President whose actions are motivated less by an informed understanding of the nature of our crisis than by some deeply personal agenda.
To begin to set it right, the least Donald Trump could say is: “Everybody wear a mask. I am.”