The blame game



Philippe Lemoine has a four part series on how China handled the Covid-19 epidemic. It’s far and away the definitive account of this issue; no other article even comes close.

I discussed part one in a previous Econlog post; here’s a excerpt from part 2:

[T]he claim that Western countries would not have botched their pandemic response had China not lied is not simply false, it is a transparent attempt by Western governments to deflect blame for their own shambolic incompetence. (This essay about the European pandemic response, or lack thereof, is particularly instructive, but one could say very similar things about the response in the US and several other countries.) In fact, many countries were able to deal with the crisis effectively, not only in East Asia but also in Australia, New Zealand, and Eastern Europe, despite the fact that, in many cases, they were more closely connected to China in general and to Wuhan in particular.

But most Western leaders and many of their public health officials didn’t seem to care about SARS-CoV-2 until it started killing people under their jurisdiction. As late as March 7th (after more than 3,000 people had died in China and the death toll had begun to climb in Italy), French President Macron went to the theatre with his wife to encourage people to continue to go out despite the pandemic. Countless other comparably clueless statements and gestures were made by public figures and their advisors in Western countries during that period, long after we knew that human-to-human transmission was possible. And yet, in spite of this ineptitude, we’re asked to believe that, had Chinese officials told them that human-to-human transmission was possible a week earlier, things would have been totally different.

The question of moral luck

On the other hand, once Chinese officials realised that sustained human-to-human transmission was occurring, they acted far more quickly and decisively than any Western government. And they did so without the benefit of a demonstration of just how dangerous this new virus could be as it attacked another country. Not only did Western governments waste weeks despite knowing more and having more time to prepare than China, but Western public health experts even criticised the measures taken by China to suppress the epidemic. Now the same newspapers who printed those rebukes are insisting that China should have taken those measures sooner.

Even if it were entirely reasonable to blame China for failing to quarantine Wuhan earlier, the recklessness and irresponsibility of certain Western governments and media outlets precludes them from doing the blaming. Not only did most of them fail to act quickly and decisively enough to prevent disaster, but some lied at least as much as the Chinese government did. This is certainly true of the French government and of the US government. Astonishingly, people seem to be happy to focus on the shortcomings of China instead of holding their own governments to account for failing to prepare for the pandemic when the seriousness of the situation became apparent. China may be a convenient scapegoat, but the citizens of Western countries should not be falling for such obvious misdirection.

Each of the four segments is very long. For those who choose not to read part 2, the bottom line is that China gradually became aware of human to human transmission of Covid-19 between about January 10 and January 20, with public statements by Chinese officials lagging about a week behind their evolving private views of the severity of the epidemic. This is not to justify their behavior, but it’s not all that far off from how information is handled by western governments during outbreaks such as the swine flu.

BTW, the Lemoine essay came out before Bob Woodward’s revelations about Trump admitting he’d lied to the American public about the severity of the epidemic. But there were already so many other Trump Covid-19 lies out there that Woodward’s revelation makes almost no difference. It’s positively mind-boggling that any American would obsess about China not being forthcoming about Covid-19, when our own government was far worse on that score.