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Alfonse D'Amato

Covid-19 is a wake-up call for America

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The coronavirus pandemic sweeping our nation has highlighted critical gaps in our ability to beat back such threats. It’s quite a wake-up call for America.

There is total consensus in the international medical community that Covid-19 originated in Wuhan, China. It likely began as a virus that jumped from animals to humans in one of that city’s notorious “wet markets,” where all sorts of live animals — including live bats known to carry coronaviruses — are slaughtered and offered for sale for human consumption.

According to U.S. intelligence reports, it is also ever more likely that a Chinese government-sponsored laboratory in that city — the Wuhan Institute of Virology — was experimenting with the virus, and that because of careless handling by its scientists, the virus might have escaped from the lab and triggered the pandemic.

The Chinese communist government has predictably obfuscated on this disaster, locking down information from Wuhan and concealing the extent of the pandemic in China. Instead of cooperating with the rest of the world to help scientists fully understand the origin and spread of the disease, Chinese authorities have lowered a cloak of secrecy and unleashed a propaganda campaign, even going so far as to make the preposterous claim that the virus was somehow imported into China by the U.S. military.

All of this would be more than bad enough if not for the fact that the virus has painfully demonstrated just how dependent the U.S. has become on China and other countries for all manner of medical supplies and critical medicines. America imports vast amounts of medical masks, gowns and other protective equipment. Much of our pharmaceutical industry, which was once located in the U.S. and Puerto Rico, has shifted to Asia over the past few decades.

America today is in the extraordinarily dangerous position of fighting a pandemic caused largely by the Chinese government’s carelessness and malfeasance with medical supplies from China. That must change, and quickly. It’s time for America to see China for the adversary it is, not the partner we might wish it to be.

That will mean making some very fundamental changes in U.S. industrial and trade policies in the future. We must bring critical manufacturing capability back to this country, especially for important medical supplies and pharmaceuticals.

By way of example, for years America had a robust pharmaceutical industry in Puerto Rico. That industry was given tax incentives that were shortsightedly allowed to lapse, driving production to other nations, where it was welcomed with significant host-government support. Congress and the administration should reinstate those tax incentives to bring back pharmaceutical production.

There are a number of other steps Washington should consider to help rebuild our manufacturing base. For years we have allowed China and other countries to game international bodies like the World Trade Organization and the World Health Organization, which gave special treatment to those countries as “developing nations.”

But today its laughable to consider China a developing nation that can take advantage of WTO polices to dump manufactured goods in America and WHO policies that allow it to shirk its international responsibilities. How can it be right for China to run a trade surplus with the U.S. of a half trillion dollars a year at the same time that it contributes less than one-tenth of what the U.S. has contributed to the WHO? China gives the WHO less than $50 million a year, while the U.S. gives it over $500 million for international health care initiatives, because the WHO considers China a “developing nation.”

What nonsense! President Trump was right to suspend further U.S. financial support for the WHO until this glaring inequity is corrected. At the very least, China must make up the hundreds of millions of dollars it should have contributed to the WHO to match what the U.S. has already so generously contributed.

Over the next few years, in the aftermath of this international health and economic disaster, America must rebuild its industrial might. We cannot lead the world with just the strength of our ideals or our arms, great as they may be. And we must demand that countries like China treat the rest of the world fairly, and shoulder their share of the responsibility to all humankind.

It is not too late for America to wake up. But time is running out.

Al D’Amato, a former U.S. senator from New York, is the founder of Park Strategies LLC, a public policy and business development firm. Comments about this column? ADAmato@liherald.com.