Coronavirus has been unfairly used to attack Chinese governance. Those in the West have roundly condemned China’s handling of the virus as reeking of authoritarian oppression and censorship. Amnesty International has declared that “[c]ensorship, harassment and punishment for speaking out are hindering the fight against the coronavirus outbreak,” while The Washington Post proclaimed in February that “[t]he coronavirus outbreak shows the vulnerability of the ‘Chinese Model.’” Against these denunciations, however, China’s response to coronavirus has been resounding vindication of the country’s deeply efficient and competent model.
China’s response was not perfect, of course. Its initial response in early January was poor, as Wuhan city authorities covered up the virus and made some serious errors that slowed the Chinese response. But far too few have recognized that this was a fantastically difficult situation to handle. China was going in blind: This coronavirus was new, and nothing was known about it. These mistakes, moreover, happened in a two-week period in January when infections were still in the dozens. The United States — now with over 7,000 cases — is still dallying.
China more than made up for its slow start. As soon as the full gravity of the situation became apparent in late January, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leapt into action. Wuhan, with a population of 11 million, was promptly shut down, while broad swathes of the country — including Beijing’s 21 million people — were quarantined. These measures were certainly drastic, but they have proved highly successful and have saved thousands of lives. Indeed, China now has coronavirus largely under control: The country recorded just 13 new infections yesterday.
This is an extraordinary achievement, recognized as such by the experts. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director-general of the World Health Organization (WHO), commended China for “setting a new standard for outbreak control.” Responding to the fierce Western criticism of China’s approach to Wuhan, he quipped, “Can’t you appreciate [the shutdown]? They should be thanked for hammering the epicenter. They are actually protecting the rest of the world.”
Rather than accepting the words of these international experts, though, many in the West have instead cast aspersions on the WHO’s objectivity, suggesting that the organization is somehow a vassal of the Chinese state. This is to succumb to a Trumpian mindset, to disregard scientific and medical expertise in favor of prejudice and ignorance.
Ultimately, coronavirus has demonstrated the strength of China’s “model.” To quote Tedros again, “China’s speed, China’s scale and China’s efficiency … is the advantage of China’s system.” China built a hospital in 10 days and shut down a city with 3 million more people than New York. This display of deep competence, expertise, and efficiency should come as no surprise. China, after all, has put 25,000 kilometers of high-speed rail-lines into operation since 2008 and, most impressively, has dragged 700 million people out of poverty in 40 years.
Europe and America should have been able to combat coronavirus with ease. After all, they had a crucial head start: Not only do we now know hugely more about the virus than was known in mid-January, but Western countries were also given a two-month head start to prepare for potential outbreaks. They also had the chance to learn from China’s success. But the opportunity for proper preparation was wasted. The widespread attacks on China lulled Europe and America into a false sense of security — instilling the belief that the severity of China’s outbreak was down to some fundamental flaw in the country’s governance.
In fact, rather than exposing the vulnerability of the “Chinese model,” coronavirus has instead highlighted the deep ills of contemporary Western governance.
Incompetence has been the order of the day in the West. America has so far fumbled the fundamentals of containing the virus — above all, testing. Washington botched its attempts to produce a test, meaning that as of the start of last week only 8,554 people had been checked for the virus. South Korea is conducting 10,000 tests per day. Moreover, New York’s attempts to quarantine its cases have been slipshod, and counts have risen from 105 to over 2000 in just over a week. The contrast with China couldn’t be starker.
The Western response has been further hampered by a neglect of expertise at the highest levels of government. President Donald Trump stated last week that COVID-19 “is a flu. It’s a little like the regular flu that we have flu shots for … We’ve done a great job keeping it down to a minimum. Tremendous success at keeping the virus away.” Trump proceeded to place Mike Pence — who believes that “smoking doesn’t kill” and “global warming is a myth” — in charge of containing the virus. And while visiting a hospital housing coronavirus patients earlier this week, U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson “shook hands with everyone.” Championing ignorance seems to be rather popular among Anglo-American leadership.
But the problems go deeper than incompetent, inefficient and philistine political leadership. The crisis has served as a damning statement on the chronic Anglo-American underinvestment in healthcare in the neoliberal era. Symptomatic of America’s deeply backward healthcare system, it is still unclear whether Americans will have to pay for their coronavirus treatment, and the signs aren’t good. An American family flown back from Wuhan faced medical bills totaling thousands of dollars while Trump suggested that the coronavirus vaccine may be unaffordable to most Americans — let alone the 18 million Americans who have no medical insurance. China, by contrast, made testing and treatment for the virus free. In the U.K., underinvestment in the National Health Service over the past decade has left healthcare workers in a profoundly vulnerable position in the face of coronavirus.
The current crisis has fully demonstrated the superiority of Chinese governance. And as things worsen in the West, many are coming round to the realization that China is the coronavirus model. A Forbes report last week was headlined “Italy takes China’s approach to fighting rampaging coronavirus.” Indeed, the Italian government has now quarantined the whole country, while America has already had to deploy National Guard troops in the state of New York. The real, troubling question though, is whether European and American governments will actually be capable of replicating China’s efficiency, competence and expertise. Don’t hold your breath.
Contact Ravi Veriah Jacques at raviveriahjacques ‘at’ stanford.edu.