Lessons From Wuhan

Lessons From Wuhan

If we don’t debate a democratic response to pandemics now, we risk ceding leadership to tyrants.


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A new article in the journal Infection discusses the reasons behind China’s apparent success in suppressing the first wave of Covid-19. The draconian quarantine of Wuhan and nearby cities along with national travel restrictions dramatically slowed transmission to the rest of China. This allowed thousands of doctors, nurses, and emergency personnel from all over China to pour into Hubei, where they found the necessary stockpiles of test kits, respirators, protective gear, and beds to handle the large number of critical cases.

According to Chinese reports, corroborated by the World Health Organization, the number of cases has been held to under 1 million out of the 57 million population of Hubei: an attack rate of only 2 percent, much lower than expected. By contrast, Governor Newsom has just written to President Trump that California’s experts are predicting a population infection rate of 56 percent (25.5 million cases) over the next eight weeks.

It is, of course, the case that as China relaxes the quarantine and sends workers back to offices and factories the infection could come roaring back, in the absence of a vaccine. There are warning signs that this may already be occurring as Chinese citizens bring the infection back from Italy and other hot spots. The three Asian countries that like China have suppressed local outbreaks—Taiwan, Singapore, and South Korea—face the same imminent threat. But having now won public confidence, they will probably move even more aggressively to control the second wave, albeit at soaring economic cost.

China’s spectacular success, even if temporary, has been attributed by many Western journalists and state officials to the fact it is a quasi-totalitarian surveillance state. Their prime evidence is the early reaction of local bureaucrats who suppressed vital data and muzzled the press. But that’s hardly the full story.

As Republican Senator Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, a senior gastroenterologist, emphasized a few days ago, Chinese medical scientists have been “outstanding” in quickly sharing crucial information with the world medical community. Indeed, their constant stream of reports and statistics has become the informational foundation for conducting the fight almost everywhere. Go to the National Institutes of Health Covid site and see the literature for yourself.

At the same time, China and Cuba are the only countries currently rising to the challenge of providing significant medical aid and expertise to poorer nations. Cuba’s internationalist doctors have for decades been the first on the scene of dangerous outbreaks in the Third World, suffering heavy casualties in recent battles against Ebola in West Africa. They are the reliable shock troops, but the Chinese bring in the heavy artillery—a promised conveyor belt of medical experts, test kits, protective gear and so on. While Italy’s European sisters, in what may be the death blow to the European project, close their borders and refuse to share supplies, China is preparing a massive medical rescue operation in loose coordination with Russia.

Beijing, of course, is playing hegemonic politics and burnishing its image at a time when Washington has placed a “stay away and don’t call” sign on the Statue of Liberty, and the World Health Organization is crippled by the inaction of the big Western governments. To an ordinary Liberian farmer or Kenyan mother, or for that matter an elderly Italian locked inside an apartment, what matters are not promises but masks, medicine, and lots of doctors’ boots on the ground.

In recognizing China’s achievements, however, we should avoid learning the wrong lesson: State capacity for decisive action in an emergency does not necessitate the suppression of democracy. Despite what many talking heads are claiming, putting a million Uighers in reeducation camps was not a precondition for quelling the coronavirus in Hubei, nor did the Big Brother practice of surveilling all the jaywalkers in Chinese cities and scoring their “social credit” prove decisive to the national quarantine.

Still, it’s inevitable that the right-wing leaders in the White House, Downing Street, Beit Aghion, and elsewhere will seize every opportunity, as they did with 9/11, to appropriate new authoritarian powers, exploiting the consequences of their own inaction and disastrous leadership to set more precedents for closing public spaces, banning assemblies, and even suspending elections.

That’s why we need to be debating democratic models of effective response to present and future plagues, ones that mobilize popular courage, give leadership to science, and use the resources of a comprehensive system of universal health coverage and public medicine. Otherwise, we cede leadership in this age of constant emergency to our tyrants.

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