Coronavirus: White House trade adviser vows to cut reliance on foreign medical supplies

Robert Delaney

US President Donald Trump’s top trade adviser used the daily coronavirus briefing on Thursday to decry trade deals with other countries that failed to allow imports of medical supplies needed by US health authorities fighting the outbreak.

Without mentioning China specifically, Peter Navarro, the White House director of trade and manufacturing policy, applied much of the same terminology that he employed previously in defending the Trump administration’s hard-line trade stance against Beijing.

“If we learn anything from this crisis … never again should we have to depend on the rest of the world for our central medicines and countermeasures, and at the same time we will deregulate so we can get the [Food and Drug Administration] and [Environmental Protection Agency] to facilitate domestic manufacturing,” Navarro said in the coronavirus task force briefing at the White House.

Last Friday, when Trump said he would use the Defence Production Act to force companies to produce critical supplies to fight the outbreak, he named Navarro as the policy coordinator in charge of that portfolio.

Navarro added: “The key here is having advanced manufacturing on US soil that can leapfrog other countries so we don't have to worry about competing against cheap sweatshop labour, lax environmental regulations, different tax regimes, and massive subsidies of foreign governments who are actually directly attacking our industrial base.”

China bans export of medical supplies by firms not licensed to sell them at home

Chinese government subsidies have been one of the key issues that prompted the Trump administration to start a trade war with Beijing that has been running for nearly two years. The US has import tariffs of up to 25 per cent on about US$360 billion worth of Chinese imports.

Navarro also struck out against bilateral trade agreements and multilateral trade alliances generally, suggesting that they fail when they are needed most.

US President Donald Trump, Vice-President Mike Pence and Navarro during the coronavirus briefing at the White House on Thursday. Photo: AFP

“Over 50 countries have already imposed some forms of export restrictions in their country against the rest of the world,” he said. “And what we're learning from that is that no matter how many treaties you have, no matter how many alliances, no matter how many phone calls, when push comes to shove you run the risk as a nation of not having what you need.”

Navarro made the comments shortly after the number of confirmed Covid-19 cases worldwide exceeded 1 million, according to tracking by Johns Hopkins University, with the US accounting for more than a fifth of the total.

As of Thursday evening, the Hopkins count was 1,011,490 confirmed cases globally, with the US reporting 242,184 – far and away the epicentre of the outbreak’s continued growth, and more than twice as many cases as Italy, the No 2 ranked nation.

US sees record 6.6 million people seeking jobless aid amid lay-offs

Also on Thursday, the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic was dramatically reinforced when the US Labour Department reported that first-time claims for unemployment insurance broke records for filings for a second consecutive week. The 6.6 million claims reported for the week, combined with the 3.3 million filed the previous week, suggested the loss of roughly 10 million jobs in a matter of days.

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