For many, the coronavirus pandemic is an argument for international cooperation. A global crisis demands a global response and governments should cooperate to share data, coordinate research, and limit the economic fallout. However, the US and China are both treating the pandemic as an opportunity to manoeuvre for position on the global stage – even as the crisis further stokes the ongoing tensions between them.

At the heart of the Cold War struggle was the argument over which system, capitalism or communism, could better deliver material prosperity. US victory, and the democratisation of Asian tiger economies like Taiwan and South Korea, cemented in the minds of many the link between capitalism, democracy, and prosperity.

This is part of what has made China’s ability to combine breakneck growth with authoritarian rule such a dramatic challenge to the American order. Xi Jinping’s totalitarian reassertion have withered hopes that economic growth would be accompanied by liberalisation. Increasingly, under Xi China has proved willing to try and export its model which appeals to governments keen to shore their authoritarian rule, or simply desperate for development.

Now, coronavirus provides a real time comparative test of which system, the US’ or China’s, is more able to provide its citizens not just with prosperity but also security from a threat, pandemic, which we have been warned will likely recur in the near future. The world is watching.

Early on, China faced a deluge of bad press. The outbreak of coronavirus seemed to expose the limits of its totalitarianism. Its authoritarianism and obsession with information control meant the virus was allowed to spread unchecked, and even covered up, for about a month giving it time to take root and go global.

The CCP has quickly pushed back. As coronavirus apparently subsides in China, the government has moved to trumpet its “victory”. It has also sent medical supplies to a number of countries to help with their coronavirus outbreaks. Finally, and shamefully, it has also spread disinformation, through official channels no less, suggesting that the virus may have actually originated in the US – and is perhaps even a US bioweapon.

These claims are not without their appeal. Even with time to prepare US attempts to mitigate coronavirus have been shambolic and, officially, it now has more confirmed cases of coronavirus, 143, 532, than China, 82,198. Meanwhile, effective efforts outside China to contain the virus – such as in South Korea, Singapore, and Israel – have relied heavily on digital surveillance to supplement track and trace efforts. The potential parallels with China’s own digital mass surveillance, which was used to  enforce quarantines, are worrying.

The misinformation campaign is also being further bolstered by other regimes hostile to the US like Russia and Iran. Furthermore, as Jude Blanchette, the Freeman Chair in China Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, observed to NBC “Washington has the most to lose here because the U.S. has more moral credibility”.

However, the disinformation campaign also exacerbates China’s Achilles heel. It is not trusted. Medical supplies ordered from Chinese companies have turned out to be defective, undermining the image of China’s aid packages. Fury about China’s initial concealment of the virus also persists, further stoked by the continued scepticism about the coronavirus statistics provided by the Chinese government.

Many suggest that China suffered a far higher number of deaths than it has admitted to. Reports that the number of urns delivered to funeral homes in Wuhan far outstrip the official death toll have circulated widely. If China’s official statistics about coronavirus are untrue this means it crippled the global response to the disease twice over, first by concealing its presence and then by feeding the world false information.

Already the costs of this angry mistrust are beginning to show. The headline ‘China’s Lies’ emblazoned across the front of the Daily Mail certainly made an impression. The issue is being used to reopen the issue of Huawei by Conservative MPs who view letting it build the UK’s 5G network as an unacceptable risk

There are domestic costs for China as well. The coronavirus outbreak has shaken the faith of many young Chinese in the government who have learnt to distrust and question government reports, as well as the costs of doing so. Even local authorities seem to no longer fully trust the central government. The outbreak in Hubei is officially over and the quarantine has been lifted. But the police in neighbouring provinces are still stopping Hubei residents from entering. On the Hubei-Jiangxi border this sparked a riot in which angry Chinese citizens overturned police cars.

Democracies have an opportunity to use this crisis to build trust and prove the merits of their system of government. Namely, they could establish themselves as purveyors of accurate information and use their popular legitimacy to convince their citizens to accept radical containment measures. South Korea is a good example of this.

However, sadly, there is precious little evidence of this so far in the US. Sheer governmental incompetence, apparently abetted by Donald Trump’s authoritarian instinct to cover up bad news, meant that coronavirus also spread unreported in America for some time. Simmering partisan rancour and years of Trump crying “fake news” have further undermined the effort with no universally trusted institution or outlet capable of disseminating accurate information and building public buy in.

The US’ shambolic response is perhaps part of the reason it is so keen to pin the virus on China, and distract from its own issues. Trump constantly refers to the “China virus”. Mike Pompeo impeded efforts to draft joint G7 statement on the pandemic by insisting it be referred to as the “Wuhan virus”.

Some in the US are raising the alarm. Antony Blinken, former deputy secretary of state and senior Biden adviser, Tweeted last week “A global crisis demands a global response — and the US should be leading not AWOL”. However, the election is not until November.

In the meantime, the disease continues to spread across America and the US’ European allies struggle with their own epidemics unaided by it. Speaking to The Guardian Elisabeth Braw, the director of the Modern Deterrence Project at the Royal United Service Institute in London, has gone so far as to suggest while “US global leadership won’t just end because they bungled their response to the coronavirus” this will be a “pivotal point” in its decline. The US needs a better response to the virus and to China’s challenge than name-calling.