China’s Door Slam on Covid-19
Extreme, Dictatorial, Dire, Yet Effective…When China Finally Acted, China’s Approach Worked.
So what do we make of China’s response to the Novel Coronavirus, Covid-19, outbreak?
The initial reaction was horrific. In true Communist fashion, they silenced and punished the messenger, they buried the news (“There is nothing to see here. Move along.”), they passed the buck, and they unleashed what might have been controlled or at least better contained. When they did react weeks later, they also in true Communist fashion threw everything, including the kitchen wok, at the problem. They shut down a Province. They effectively quarantined an area of almost 72,000 square miles, with a population of fifty-eight million people. This is land area greater than Ohio and South Carolina combined. This is the population of California and New York combined. To us in the West, even with Italy and Spain now attempting nationwide closures and New York’s more modest attempt (New Rochelle), this is seemingly unfathomable and almost certainly not attainable.
Just as the Chinese government was ineffective in its initial response in large part because no one at the provincial, city, and local levels are inclined to act without the say-so from on high, the central Chinese government was ultimately effective when it did act to shut down Hubei Province because of the nature of the country’s polity. There are two principal reasons why people follow their government — respect (trust) or fear. Without at least one of these, governmental action (whether by fiat or consensus) is doomed to fail. The Chinese people by and large fear their government. They have been conditioned, not only by millennia of top-down leadership, but also by more modern techniques of ubiquitous surveillance, to follow orders because the consequences of not so following are swift and severe. This results in the ability to strictly control an economy, a government, a society. This allows doors to be slammed and sealed.
Was it worth it? There are social, economic, and political aspects to the answer. The effects on all three will ripple around China and the world for decades to come. Politically, there is dissent out in the ether. Until the internet police locked down WeChat and Weibo, there was a great deal of consternation and anger expressed online. It still exists and is finding more creative outlets daily. The government’s rule is not by any means jeopardized, and in many places is being cheered, but the fallout from this disaster cannot help but have an effect on the thinking and actions of future leaders.
The economic hit inside China and around the globe will be epic. The shock to the worldwide system cannot be estimated at this time, only fretted about. Why? Mostly because until the pandemic is controlled/stabilized, the focus needs to be on stopping the bleeding. Triage and treatment are needed before the path forward can be reasonably contemplated. China has now got a handle on the disease, and society in many places is restarting. But restarting to what? Foxconn and other factories can once again begin making products, but their buyers (and their buyers’ customers) are now amidst the worsening world outbreak and will not be in much of a mood to buy.
An ironic benefit of the Covid-19 outbreak in China is that the environment has remarkably cleaned itself. With industry closed, people sequestered, and life basically paused, air pollution, nitrogen dioxide levels, carbon emissions, have all dropped between 20–30% or more. Stunning, but transitory. As the country gets back to life, so will the environmental impact.
Socially, the impact on the psyches of the Chinese people who have been locked down not only in their cities, but their neighborhoods and their individual apartments, will have lasting effects. The fear of what lies behind the front door. The anxiety of getting food and supplies. The trauma of being cooped up with your family in tight quarters for weeks on end. The loss of freedom of movement even in a country where such movement is otherwise channeled and controlled. Since hospitals and clinics were likely overrun, since regular patients (cancer, pregnant women, elective surgery, and virtually all others) were likely shut out, the health and wellbeing of the people suffered, whether or not they were afflicted with coronavirus. Looking at the situation on the various cruise ships that became incubators of illness, we can surmise on a larger scale what life in Wuhan and the surrounding area must have been and be like. That anarchy has not erupted is a testament to something.
So, was it worth it? I have gone back and forth on this. A mandatory quarantine effectively sacrifices the “few” for the benefit of the “many.” It is the ultimate in restraint on personal movement and freedom. It is the epitome of social control. It is a system foreign to most Westerners. To me, unscientific though this is, the answer is that the lockdown of Hubei Province worked. It contained the spreading illness. While people are still becoming sick and dying in Hubei Province, the levels have plateaued and are falling. Even Chinese leader Xi Jinping ventured to the epicenter last week. Outside of Hubei, the spread of the illness has been mostly arrested. Life is beginning to become a bit more normal in many of these places, though by no means all.
The Chinese quarantine has come at a devastating social and economic price, but it worked. If other countries had looked at China’s aborted and then subsequent efforts and taken earlier lessons from each, we might not be looking at the worldwide spread that has reached pandemic proportions.