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Praise for China’s COVID-19 response is misguided and misleading

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We write in response to Ravi Veriah Jacques’s March 18 article “Coronavirus has vindicated China, exposed the West.” We share his concerns about COVID-19. But his effusive praise of China’s response to the novel coronavirus is misguided, and his argument contains numerous inaccuracies.

Jacques extolls China’s response to the outbreak of the novel coronavirus in Wuhan, regretting only a few “mistakes” made by the Chinese government early on, “when infections were still in the dozens.” Yet these “mistakes” have proven deadly. Patients in Wuhan began exhibiting symptoms of the viral infection now known as COVID-19 in early December, and by the end of that month, doctors recognized that they were dealing with an entirely new pathogen. Yet the Chinese government barred medical professionals from sounding the alarm to their peers or to the general public. According to the Times of London, Beijing mandated that doctors halt tests, destroy samples and cover up the news. One doctor, Li Wenliang, was arrested and forced to confess to “illegal behavior.” His alleged crime? Warning peers about the dangers of the novel coronavirus. 

Jacques rightly notes that Chinese public health authorities have taken aggressive steps to combat the virus since late January. But by then, it was already too late to prevent spread beyond Hubei Province. As The New York Times has shown, the virus quickly began to circulate outside of Wuhan in early January. A study from Southampton University found that had Chinese authorities proactively taken steps to interdict the virus three weeks earlier, the number of cases could have been decreased by 95% and geographic spread constrained. 

This failure is inherent to the Chinese dictatorial model. Far from a glitch in the system, it is a product of it. As Marc Thiessen writes in The Washington Post, closed authoritarian systems depend on lies to survive. “The system creates such fear that people are terrified to report bad news up the chain, causing ‘authoritarian blindness.’ Then, when those at the top finally discover the truth, they try to cover it up,” he says. 

Rather than save human lives, authoritarian leaders seek to preserve their image and the myth of efficiency. In attempting to cover up the COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan, Chinese authorities squandered an opportunity to prevent a pandemic. When there were only a few cases, classic public health measures like quarantines and contact tracing offered a means to prematurely halt the spread of the virus. Yet the nature of a closed authoritarian system makes such responsible public policy impossible. 

Jacques lauds the response of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to COVID-19 “as soon as the full gravity of the situation became apparent.” Never mind the fact that the dangers of the new pathogen would have been known far earlier had the CCP not attempted to hide the truth. China’s cover-up continues even today, as Beijing promotes an outlandish conspiracy theory that the U.S. military brought the novel coronavirus to Wuhan — statements that further cloud the truth and do nothing to help global COVID-19 response. 

Moreover, much of Jacques’s praise of China is based on comments from the director-general of the World Health Organization (WHO), Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. Yet in quoting Tedros’s views on China, Jacques fails to note that the director-general has a history of taking pro-China positions. Moreover, since 2014, Chinese financial contributions to WHO have increased by over 50%, to $86 million. Given these interests, Tedros’s praise should be viewed critically and not accepted at face value. 

In fact, Chinese influence on WHO probably inhibited the global response to the virus. WHO likely delayed declaring COVID19 a public health emergency due to Chinese pressure. In addition, it took weeks for China to allow a WHO advance team access to the country in order to coordinate a global response. 

The response of the United States and other Western countries to COVID-19 is not perfect. But to exalt the “superiority” of the Chinese model, which facilitated the spread of the virus, is deeply misguided. 

Finally, Jacques suggests that the Chinese model is the only “successful” example of an effective response to COVID-19, but that is not the case. South Korea, a liberal democracy, has had much more contact with China than Italy, yet many fewer deaths due to COVID-19. This is because South Korea has many more tests than Italy, allowing Seoul to act more quickly to isolate the infected and trace the spread of the virus. Consequently, new cases in South Korea have dropped from a peak of more than 800 a day to less than 100 a day now, according to WHO data. South Korea has successfully “flattened the curve” without resorting to the “China Model” of disinformation and infringement of civil liberties.

Jacques implies that effective pandemic response is a binary choice between authoritarianism and disaster. Let us not limit ourselves to this false dichotomy. 

Andrew Lokay ’20
Bryce Tuttle ’20

Contact Andrew Lokay at alokay ‘at’ stanford.edu and Bryce Tuttle at btuttle ‘a’ stanford.edu.

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