Kieran Singh is a Freshman at Tufts University.
The 2019 novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) originated in Hubei Province, China, last year. It has since spread to the United States, Australia, Russia, India, Canada, and many other countries, with the first out-of-China death occurring in the Philippines. Its symptoms resemble those of other common respiratory diseases, including shortness of breath, fever and cough. The virus has triggered 600 deaths out of more than 31,161 infections. The rate, while seemingly low, is ten times that of the flu, where, in the United States, about .1% of those infected die. Some of this is attributable to the higher quality of healthcare in fully developed countries, but the relatively high mortality rate is cause for concern.
The Chinese government’s response, considered the most important in preventing the spread of the virus, shows the limits and silver linings of their authoritarian state capitalist system of government. At the outset of the virus, the CCP understated the severity of Coronavirus by underreporting infection numbers and censoring the spread of information on social media. After realizing and acting on the illness’ severity, the CCP proceeded to round up everyone in Wuhan (the largest city in Hubei Province), placing them in isolated quarantine camps. The city at large remains in lockdown, with more than 50 million people unable to leave Hubei province. While the CCP has swung from denying the virus outright to acting resolutely, there are concerns that the lockdown is too severe and too early. Inglesby, the director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, told the New York Times that: “If you continue to quarantine …, you’re going to start to really break normal societal interaction, normal movement of medical supplies, food and medicine,” he continues that such measures are “more harmful than helpful” at containing the spread of the virus. While China is far from a democracy, lost trust from individuals, especially in Wuhan, has undermined unilateral government action; when faced with such a large external threat, the framework of authoritarianism may not be as all-powerful as it seems. Still, in recent days the lockdown has been effective, ballooning to a restriction of 760 million people. The amount of coordination it takes to shutter so many people in their homes speaks to the remaining power and prestige of the CCP, as weakened as it is by COVID-19.
It is vital to keep in mind the difference between criticizing a nation and a people. While it makes sense to argue that administrative mistakes contributed to the spread of coronavirus, there is no justification for claiming that the character of the Chinese people, in their attitude, habits or diet, led to the outbreak. The situation can teach us about the drawbacks in totalitarian governance, but also teach us to mentally separate the leaders of said government from the subjects. With that said, there have been positive actions taken since by the Chinese government. In 10 days, a timespan virtually unheard of for American infrastructure progress, the Chinese government built the Huoshenshan Hospital from nothing. It will house more than a thousand patients, primarily those afflicted with Coronavirus, and better serves an isolated Wuhan. While authoritarian governance is a model the United States should be loath to follow, it is important to ask how we can be best prepared(without the ineffectual ones) for the next crisis stateside.
As for the U.S. response so far, Coronavirus czar and HHS secretary Alex Azar has issued a temporary travel ban for anyone who had been in China in the 14 days before the order, excluding US citizens and relatives of US citizens. Still, layered in the proclamation was a concern, if not resignation, that the travel ban was quite unenforceable due to the volume of movement between the two superpowers. If the outbreak in the US were to reach significance, Bollyky at the council of foreign relations worries about coordination in the messy network of executive branch agencies, citing the necessity of a “variety of inputs.” At the risk of gross speculation, if there were to be one difference between the U.S. hypothetical response to Coronavirus and China’s shown capacity, it’s the tradeoff between democracy and unilateral mobilization. The CCP has quickly steamrolled the rights and concerns of Hubei residents, but their response may have given them a 10-day hospital and saved them a larger crisis. Independent of current considerations of Donald Trump’s authoritarianism, quick mobilization is out of the question. Which system of government will ultimately fare better in an epidemic remains to be seen.