WASHINGTON: President Donald Trump complained that the coronavirus outbreak “could have been stopped” in China, further escalating his dispute with Beijing as criticism mounts over his own effort to stem the disease’s expansion across the US.
Trump aired his assessment – a stark shift from his praise of Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s response last month – at a news conference Thursday to discuss national outbreak-control efforts.
The president again characterised the pathogen that causes Covid-19 as a “Chinese virus,” with the term “corona” crossed out with a marker in his prepared remarks and replaced with “Chinese.”
“If people would have known about it, it could have been stopped in place,” Trump said.
“It could have been stopped right where it came from, China, if we would have known about it, if they would have known about it.
“But now the whole world, almost, is inflicted with this horrible virus.”
Trump’s efforts to highlight the virus’s foreign origins come as the US rushes to implement precautions taken by several other countries immediately after China acknowledged the extent of its outbreak two months ago.
The criticism of China was echoed by Eduardo Bolsonaro, the son of Brazil President Jair Bolsonaro, who faulted the “Chinese dictatorship” for failing to stop the virus that infected at least 16 members of their entourage after a trip to Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort.
China has lashed out against efforts to blame it for the global virus crisis, while its own diplomats and state-controlled media question the widely documented assertion that the virus began in the central Chinese city of Wuhan.
While Democrats and health experts warn that Trump risks stigmatising an entire ethnic group, he says he embraced “Chinese virus” after the foreign ministry in Beijing repeated a conspiracy theory that the disease was introduced by US Army athletes.
Trump’s use of the word “inflicted” was also used this month by US Senator Tom Cotton, an Arkansas Republican, who has said that Beijing should be held accountable for the outbreak.
The harder line against China follows weeks of statements from Trump playing down the danger from the virus, saying the US had things under control.
Anthony Fauci, director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said he isn’t using the phrase “Chinese virus” but can’t control what the president says.
“Hopefully people will not be doing that,” Fauci said when asked on PBS “Newshour” about Trump’s use of the phrase.
“You know it just gets to the point, whenever you put a designation, there always is a bit of a stigma associated with that.”
The dispute is deepening mistrust between the world’s two largest economies, just as the international community seeks coordination to stop the pandemic from spiralling further and pushing the globe into recession.
China is also leaning on nationalism as a lull in new cases allows gives Xi time to shore up his own slowing economy and counter domestic criticism of early government efforts to cover up the scale of the threat.
China’s top disciplinary body on Thursday blamed Wuhan police for inappropriately reprimanding whistle-blowing doctor Li Wenliang, whose warnings about the virus made him a folk hero.
The findings stopped short of recommending disciplinary action against top Wuhan officials as many residents had demanded on social media.
“Some hostile forces have labelled Dr Li Wenliang a ‘hero’ and an ‘awakener’ to confront the system. This is totally untrue,” the body said.
“Those forces with ulterior motives to fan the flames of unrest, mislead the public and stir up social emotions are doomed to fail.”
China has stepped up diplomatic outreach to coronavirus outspots such as Europe and the Middle East, sending medical supplies and teams of experts overseas as its own tally of new cases falls to zero.
At the same, state media have highlighted struggles to contain the disease in the West and Chinese diplomats have lashed out at foreign officials who attempt to blame Beijing for the outbreak.
The Chinese foreign ministry made an unprecedented move to expel more than a dozen American journalists in Beijing earlier this week, in retaliation for a Trump administration push to slash the country’s authorised state media staff in the US.
The New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Washington Post journalists targeted had closely covered the coronavirus outbreak, as well as other topics considered sensitive to the ruling Communist Party.
While Chinese authorities have so far avoided direct criticism of Trump that could upend the tenuous trade truce the two sides reached in January, they have criticised administration officials such as Secretary of State Michael Pompeo.
How long they’ll continue to toe that line was unclear.
On Thursday, the Chinese embassy in Brasilia took a veiled swipe at Trump while condemning Eduardo Bolsonaro’s remarks on the outbreak.
The Brazilian lawmaker had caught a “mental virus that is infecting the friendship between our people” and was imitating his “dear friends,” the embassy said.
The embassy also shared a tweet, later deleted, calling the Bolsonaro family “poison” for Brazil, which prompted an angry reaction from Brazil Foreign Minister Ernesto Araujo.
In a statement, Araujo demanded an apology from China.
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