Blaming China soothes an America fighting COVID-19

by Fabius Maximus

Summary: A crisis reveals hidden things about nations and shatters outdated beliefs about the state of the world. So it is with COVID-19, as America confronts the harsh fact that its response to COVID-19 has been inferior to China’s.

China and COVID-19 - AdobeStock-331015273
By Photocreo Bednarek. AdobeStock-331015273.

East vs. West

The age-old race for leadership between East and West may have begun a new phase, as revealed by the response of each to COVID-19. East Asia was hit first, having neither warning nor knowledge of the threat. China, a large and relatively poor nation, was hit first – while in the midst of a flu epidemic (both have roughly similar symptoms). The epidemic quickly spread to its neighbors, and became an epidemic in South Korea. All successfully fought it off despite lacking any pharmaceutical tools – and in China, without the lavish supply of advanced medical equipment (e.g., ICU units with ventilators) taken for granted in the West.

They used the ancient tools of lavish testing (using both clinical methods and kits), contact tracing to identify who was exposed, quarantines for the sick and exposed, cordons sanitaire around areas with raging infections (to prevent spread). As the leaders of WHO have repeatedly said, China’s response was record-setting. Compare this timeline of China’s respsonse to COVID-19 with the CDC’s timeline of the US response to the 2009 H1N1 (swine flu) epidemic – remembering that the US has almost 4x China’s per capita income and spends 2x to 3x more of its GDP on health care than its peer nations. The Swine Flu epidemic emerged in the US and spread across the globe.

“From April 12, 2009 to April 10, 2010, CDC estimated there were 60.8 million cases (range: 43.3-89.3 million), 274,304 hospitalizations (range: 195,086-402,719), and 12,469 deaths (range: 8868-18,306) in the United States due to the (H1N1)pdm09 virus. Additionally, CDC estimated that 151,700-575,400 people worldwide died from (H1N1)pdm09 virus infection during the first year the virus circulated.”

The West began vastly better prepared than China for an epidemic. The US was considered the best prepared in the world (see here). We had two months to prepare and the models of East Asia’s successful defenses. Yet we appear to be on track to suffer far more from it. After action analysis will determine why, but three things are now obvious.

First, we were arrogant. Asia was hit but we are great, without need to mobilize or even plan. The rest of the world used effective kits, but the CDC and FDA had to produce their own better kits.

Second, we have lost a vital element of social cohesion: trust in experts and institutions. East Asia’s leaders took expert advice and acted boldly. The American public voraciously consumes analysis about the epidemic, the less qualified the writer – the more viral it becomes. No relevant expertise or experience is best of all. So long as it has numbers and graphs and bold conclusions stated confidently! For more about this, see The info superhighway makes us stupid about COVID-19. This is one of the many parallels of this crisis with the climate change debate, where the IPCC has been largely displaced by scientists with fringe views or screams by alarmists with no relevant training or experience.

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Third – and I do not know how to well describe this – a significant fraction of Americans were disoriented by America’s failures, the stress of the crisis, and East Asia’s superior performance. Perhaps the foundation of this was the military’s decades-long program to demonized China (they needed a replacement threat for second-world Russia to justify their funding). Perhaps this is a legacy of the “yellow peril” racism.

China screwed up!

As I described in The COVID-19 story: mistakes were made, wars and epidemics have many similarities. Since neither can be rehearsed or practiced (e.g., as firefighters can), both usually begin with errors. The winners are those who recover the fastest and make the fewest big mistakes. As WHO has documented, China recovered quickly and acted boldly. A common response in America was just to deny this. Even now many Americans refuse to see China’s success. This is a pitiful indicator of national decline. Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove described China’s situation at yesterday’s WHO media briefing.

“We know what measures were taken in China and in particular in Wuhan and in Hubei and we know that these measures are being lifted now and the reason they can be lifted is because the systems are in place to actually quickly identify and isolate any cases that pop up. Now what we’re seeing in China is we’re not seeing indigenous cases, cases that are being locally transmitted. We’re seeing new importations. There are more importations that are going into China than are actually being detected from local transmission. We haven’t had local transmission, I think, in a number of days now.”

The case that they should have done better is asserted, without providing any standard of comparison – such as comparison with the US response to swine flu. Often these assertions are confidently stated nonsense. My favorite example of this is from the once great (Murdoch run) Wall Street Journal: “How It All Started: China’s Early Coronavirus Missteps“, 6 March 2020. Its highlighted graph focused on these two dates:

  • “Jan. 9: Chinese officials announce coronavirus outbreak. (44 confirmed cases)”
  • “Jan. 23: Wuhan and other areas quarantined (639 confirmed cases).”

That’s only 11 days between national recognition of the epidemic and blockading most of a province (tens of millions of people)! The WSJ also ignored the escalation of steps during those 11 days. Also, they did not “quarantine” Wuhan. It was a cordon sanitaire, a very different and far more drastic step. This basic error shows the ignorance and lack of expert advice by the WSJ’s journalists.

Accompanying that is often outrage that several million people fled before the cordon sanitaire was completed. Again, what is the standard of comparison? How effective were past such efforts (I cannot even recall any)? How effective were similar actions in the US and Europe? Trick question! We did not do any, we just let the virus spread!

For example, compare that with the response in Washington State.  On 21 January 2020, Washington State reported its first case. Since the government response was almost nil, it spread invisibly – there was little testing, either clinical screening or by kits. The first state lab began tests approx February 28 – 38 days after the first infection, four weeks after China had successfully contained the epidemic.

By March 14, they had 642 confirmed cases – aprox. the same as when China blockaded Wuhan. Still, no large-scale measures were taken. There were small scale measures – such as a quarantine of the infected in Seattle on March 3, and special procedures for nursing homes on March 9. Wider but still small measures were taken on March 11 and 12.

All this was much slower than in China – despite the vastly greater knowledge about the threat in February and March than China’s government had in early January.

Another example are epidemiologists’ calculations that earlier detection of COVID-19 could have saved thousands of lives. That is useful information, a repetition of their long-standing pleas for better systems to detect epidemics (ignored because that would cost dimes per person). As a criticism it is business as usual. Almost every crisis could have been avoided or mitigated with faster action. For example, the after the fact reviews of intelligence agencies’ files reveal nuggets that properly seen could have changed history. Hindsight is perfect, whether in your lives and mine, or in the events of nations.

Guessing about reasons

My guess (guess!) is that we feel global leadership slipping away due to our horrific series of mistakes in the past two decades. As the superiority of East Asia’s response to COVID-19 vs. the West response’s becomes more obvious, it becomes more emotionally imperative for Americans to show that IT WAS ALL CHINA’s FAULT.

Let’s end this tale with cheers: Yea, We’re Number One. We Have No Need To Learn From Others! No matter what happens to America, it’s other people’s fault!

The Good News

Failures are warnings, giving us opportunities to do better in the future.

A reminder of the key fact

Epidemics, depressions, and wars are natural aspects of life. If we become weak, one of these ills eventually will destroy our society. For America to survive, each of us must stay connected and committed to our communities and nation. As the Director-General of WHO has said since the beginning, we can survive this well if we support each other. We have the resources. We need only the standard virtues of compassion and courage plus some wit and willpower.