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First published at Balkan Insight comments section

Donald Trump’s chances of re-election later this year hang on his success in managing the coronavirus outbreak – which in turn will decide whether Washington remains fixated on ‘quick fixes’ in the Balkans.

Unexpected, and with significant consequences, the global COVID-19 pandemic resembles one of Nassim Taleb’s “black swans”. Taleb himself has dismissed the analogy, however. Speaking to Bloomberg last week, he insisted that “the pandemic was preventable” and therefore a “white swan”.

There was “no excuse [that] governments and corporations have not prepared for the pandemic”, he said. Epidemiologists warn that something similar, if not on the same scale, can happen at the onset of the flu season every year.

Writing for Foreign Affairs, the Serbian-American economist Branko Milanovic has called the pandemic an “evil” with which “we are incapable of dealing effectively and regarding whose duration no one can make any serious predictions”.

He foresees such a decline in supply and demand that, if the pandemic lasts longer than six months, it will undermine the very course of globalization and push countries towards self-sufficiency. Looking at the grim images from Italy, he concludes that the main task of economic policy now is to “prevent social breakdown”.

When it comes to the US, meanwhile, one thing seems clear: Donald Trump’s chances of re-election as President hang on his ability to “unite the nation” in its response to the pandemic.

A challenge of such a magnitude provides “ample opportunity to take up the mantle of national leader and appear presidential”. [Zachary Wolf reporting for CNN]

Destined to become a coronavirus hotspot:

People wait in line to be tested for COVID19 at the Gotham Health Center in the Bronx, New York, USA, 2020. Photo: EPA-EFE/JUSTIN LANE

This challenge is as real as it gets. Due to the exponential spread of the virus, the US has now surpassed all other countries in terms of the numbers of those infected.

In characteristic fashion, Trump at first appeared overly optimistic when discussing possible therapies: remember his tweets about the effect of chloroquine? At one point, he predicted a return to “normal life” by Easter, which falls on April 12 – contrary to experts’ advice about the need to “flatten the curve” of infection first.

It wasn’t only Trump’s personality that was behind such unwarranted optimism. His re-election ticket was the economy. By the time of the coronavirus outbreak, US unemployment was at a record low of 3.5 per cent. Growth in 2019 was 2.3 per cent, a good figure for a developed country.

Faced with choosing between “jobs and lives”, however preposterous that sounds, the administration was at first hesitant. Add to this the decentralized nature of governance in America, where decisions on mandatory quarantine are made by state governors. [As of April 5, eight – all Republican – governors were still holding out.]

On 28 February, Trump called the pandemic the “Democrats’ new hoax”, one day before the first death from the coronavirus was reported in the Seattle area. One of his trademarks – his polarizing discourse – was also to call the virus “Chinese”, as well as calling reporters’ tricky questions “vile” and governors with whom he disagrees “incompetent.” Therefore, any potential failure to stem the pandemic will be attributed to him first.

Part of the blame will be laid also on the system. That also seemed to suffer from overconfidence. Instead of simply asking the World Health Organization, WHO, for the tests that it was sending around the world, the US, through its Centre for Disease Control, CDC, opted to make its own tests (which is, to be fair, what the country typically does). These turned out to be unreliable, so precious time was wasted.

And as Reuters reported, in July last year, a Chinese-American medical official embedded with Chinese disease control agency was asked to leave her post only months before the outbreak, and was thus unable to warn her US colleagues of how quickly the disease spreads, or what the Chinese aim(ed) to do.

The US was thus ideally positioned to become the new hotspot of the pandemic. Many of its citizens still have no health insurance; according to the report by the think tank Commonwealth Fund, as many as 61 million Americans, or 1 in 5, are either “uninsured” or “underinsured”.  If projections about the number of people who will need intensive care are correct, no healthcare system in the world would be able to sustain such an influx of patients.

Finally, there is a culture of restraint in the US when it comes to ordering – commandeering – assets in the private sector to fight the pandemic, which now, if this is really “a war”, seems a necessity.

Meanwhile, images similar to those in Europe are being shared from hospitals in New York and New Jersey, showing lack of equipment and intensive care units ICUs, and too many critically ill patients. Clearly, the US is not immune to the ongoing “bidding war” and “grab” for scarce medical equipment that no country seems immune to.

The real enemy won’t be Biden but the virus:

People enter a municipal office building decorated with billboard showing Serbian and Chinese flags. Photo: EPA-EFE/ANDREJ CUKIC

The alt-right ideologist and former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon has said that, come this fall, Trump will not be fighting Joe Biden, the favourite to win the Democratic nomination, but COVID-19 and its aftermath. “You could have a financial crash, economic great depression and a war against a bug all simultaneously,” Bannon said, adding that in November, Trump “is going to be weighed and measured by the American people by how [he handles] the crisis.” This is followed by one Trump campaign operative saying: “If he f**** up the economic stimulus around the coronavirus, he loses.”

In understanding what might happen, opinion polls are not helpful. While more Americans than not still think the administration is coping well, the President’s own approval rating has dropped from 49 to 44 per cent.

The sword ultimately hanging over Trump’s re-election hopes is a sharp rise in unemployment. After 3.5 million Americans asked for insurance payments in the week starting 23 March, Secretary of the Treasury Steve Mnuchin warned that if a package of measures were not adopted, some 20 million Americans might join them.

In days, the President had changed his tune. He has now signed into law a financial injection of two thousand billion dollars, the “largest bail-out in US history”, larger than the one in 2008. He has promised a check of $1,200 to each American earning less than $ 75,000 a year; as well as a number of tax breaks for businesses.

He has invoked the Defense Production Act, a law first passed in the Korean War. Finally, he has called himself a “war president”, one who, in the words of former campaign advisor Sam Nunberg, fights against fake news, obstructionist Democrats and the “Chinese virus” – all at the same time. Communicated from a position of power, however untrue, it may make for an effective message – but only if the crisis is constrained and then managed.

Addressing foreign policy issues at these times seems like an afterthought. It is no secret that many in the Western Balkans would be glad to see Trump gone. His administration has changed the US approach to Kosovo – not on Bosnia – in part by accepting Belgrade’s invitation to get involved. Right until the outbreak of the pandemic in the region, and immediately after, if one takes into account the vote of no confidence in Albin Kurti’s government in Kosovo – only Washington was placing any kind of pressure on Belgrade and (to a greater extent) on Pristina to “deal”, ostensibly so that the US President could present a foreign policy success right before the elections (remember the letter from December and the call for a peace agreement to be presented at the White House Rose Garden).

What informs Americans’ judgment is the by now well known perceived inability of the EU to move the Serbia-Kosovo process forward, and somewhat different perception of what “normalization” of their relations should mean. There are also strategic considerations, i.e. countering Russia’s and China’s advances in the region; and Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic’s apparent ability to “deliver” acquiescence to a deal with Kosovo on the part of the home population.

That is why some politicians are, perhaps not openly, betting on the victory of the Democratic candidate in November. This “long wait” has been going on for several months now. It is shared by some high-ranking diplomats and think-tankers who all advise against “quick fixes”.

Such an approach contains a risk for both sides, the one pushing for an agreement and the other being against it. Trump – like other autocrats – might survive this “existential” challenge and stay in power, even more self-assured and in a vindictive mood. Or, he could fail miserably. But even in that case, the incoming administration will have other matters to attend to. The post-corona world might turn out to be very different, all depending on how long the pandemic lasts.

So might the Western Balkans. Imagine the dreaded “Italian” or “Spanish” scenarios in these societies and the effect that the potential breakdown of social services might have on ruling regimes. The social contract, or whatever is left of it in our “captured” states, would be in tatters. The effects on the economy? SMEs are already complaining that if the crisis extends beyond April, many will be out of business. Thus, the need for subsidies and bail-outs across the board.

The EU has its instruments, and has been called on to develop something like the post-World War II Marshall Plan. But it will take some time if and before it devises something similar for the Western Balkans. So far, Serbia, North Macedonia and Croatia have adopted their own “rescue plans” of fiscal stimuluses and tax breaks, with neighbours bound to follow.

Ultimately, it may be no wonder if Belgrade-Pristina dynamics are low on the list of priorities. That might even be a good thing. It may make for a more organic, locally owned process, less a tool of the political class and more of something that serves citizens’ interest, whichever country they see as their own.

Or, social collapse, however impossible it may seem at the moment, might create a context in which sovereigntists, opposed to globalization and in favour of self sufficiency, might thrive.

Marko Savkovic works as Executive Director of the Belgrade Fund for Political Excellence

The opinions expressed in the Comment section are those of the authors only and do not necessarily reflect the views of BIRN.

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