LONDON — Former U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair questioned U.S. President Donald Trump’s approach to the coronavirus crisis and warned of “terrifying” economic consequences if global lockdown measures continue as they are.
“The countries that locked down fast and that are building, testing, tracing and tracking capability fast, that then enables you to be more bold on the economy,” he told NBC News on Friday.
Trump's government has been accused of bungling the response to the pandemic by first downplaying the threat and not moving quickly or efficiently enough to deal with the growing crisis.
“I think the problem that you have in most Western countries today is that people are now very well-informed about the risks of the disease,” Blair said from his home in the United Kingdom where, like much of the rest of his country, he’s spent the last eight weeks with his family under lockdown.
“I think they are not sufficiently well-informed about the risks of economic collapse,” he added.
The pandemic and the consequent lockdown has slammed the world economy. In the U.S., the first quarter of 2020 saw the steepest decline since the Great Recession.
As prime minister from 1997 to 2007, Blair became an important figure on the world stage and was a key ally of U.S. President George W. Bush. Under his leadership, the U.K. joined the U.S.-led coalition fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Asked about Trump’s widely condemned comments on whether the coronavirus might be treated by injecting disinfectant into the body, Blair said, “I think most people would understand what I would think, but it's probably better sometimes not to say it.”
He added that he was less worried about individual comments and more concerned about what he called “the absence of global coordination.”
He then went on to compare Trump to his predecessors.
“If I think back to the times when I'm dealing with Bill Clinton or George Bush, Barack Obama as well, the most important thing at a time like this is to say, ‘How do you bring the world together?’”
That included working together to find a vaccine, accelerating the development of therapeutics and testing capability and making sure economic measures are in place to ease what will be a massive economic problem for the world, he said.
“It's that global coordination, the absence of which means that each individual country's less effective at dealing with the disease. That's the thing that worries,” he said, suggesting that the U.S. may have lost its desire to influence the global agenda.
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During his time in office, Trump has strained the United States’ traditional allegiances and withdrawn from agreements, such as the landmark Iran nuclear deal, the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Paris climate agreement. Most recently, he threatened to make the freeze on U.S. funding for the World Health Organization permanent, accusing the organization of an "alarming lack of independence” from China.
In comments that will add to the debate about how quickly to end the current global lockdown, Blair also advocated for an easing of restrictions, albeit with measures in place.
“We needed to terrify people sufficiently to get them to obey the lockdown, but you've got to also help people to understand that there is a limit to how long you can go on with this,” he said.
Blair — who now heads the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, a nonprofit organisation — added that his family members are all well and healthy.
“I’ve been enjoying not traveling all the time,” he said during the internet call. “That’s been good to be in one place, and probably much more healthy as a result.”
He said he was especially concerned about the impact of COVID-19 restrictions in Africa, a continent of 1.2 billion people, where, according to official data, the disease has had very limited health implications with just over 3,000 deaths.
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Blair said lockdown measures were disrupting programmes that help treat and limit the spread of malaria, diarrheal diseases and HIV/AIDS.
“The risk is the African countries end up suffering many more deaths because the lockdown around COVID is imposing barriers on them treating their people,” he said.
Food insecurity and lack of work in the informal economy were also placing a huge burden on the continent.
Blair said people must now recognise that the economic fallout globally could be far worse than the health implications.
“You've got to say to people, ‘Yes, look, I can't tell you that there is no risk, whatever, if you send children back into primary school, but what I can tell you is that the evidence from around the world is that the risk is very small.’”