The West’s embarrassing response to Covid

In the spring, I pushed back at people who claimed it was all China’s fault—the claim that if they’d only warned us a week or two earlier, we could have prevented the epidemic. This argument is wrong on so many levels that it’s almost laughable that anyone still believes it. At this late date, it’s like believing in Santa Claus.

The FT has an excellent report on China’s response to the crisis. At first the report looks like it’s going in an anti-China direction, and there is appropriate criticism of bureaucratic delay in Wuhan. But in the end the Chinese government only delayed a warning to the world by a few days, say from roughly January 16th to January 20th. This sort of unfortunate screw-up is part of the normal “fog of war” problem. But as we’ll see, it’s utterly trivial compared to the massive screw-ups in the West.

Ironically, what the West insists China should have done when they discovered the problem—make a massive effort to stop the spread—is exactly what China did do after a roughly one week delay. And they succeeded. Even though the pandemic had already spread to dozens of Chinese provinces, the national lockdown stopped it in its tracks. By early March it was basically over, and China’s had only very small flare-ups ever since:

We also know that many other developed countries were able to do the same, keep it under firm control. But not the US and most of Europe.

The supreme irony here is that we are blaming China for not taking steps that we were unwilling to take, when in fact China did take those steps, just a week or so too late.

America faced a far easier challenge than China. On January 20th we still had just a few known cases. China was already swamped. And yet for 6 weeks our government sat around twiddling its thumbs. Some will say that at least Trump put a ban on travel from China. But even that’s a lie—there was never a China travel ban. (My wife is flying directly from China to the US in 2 weeks.) And even if there had been a travel ban, it would have been completely pointless—the virus was already here and we were doing nothing to stop it from spreading like wildfire.

“I was in China [in mid-February] and was able to see the extent of the response,” he added. “Unbelievable lockdowns with trains not moving, aeroplanes all with covers on their engines, and absolutely clear blue skies in [often polluted] Beijing. So it did spread across China, but they just shut it down.”

Meanwhile other countries and territories in east Asia — most notably South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore — used a more flexible mix of visitor bans, contact tracing and lockdowns milder than China’s to contain community spread of the virus effectively.

But for those countries that were quick to issue travel bans while doing little else in a co-ordinated, nationwide fashion, such as the US, it was too late. 

Australia and New Zealand also had effective responses. And although Melbourne was recently hit by a big second wave, the Aussie government quickly got it under control. So it wasn’t just East Asian countries that knew what to do.

In the spring, people complained when I pointed out that China’s not to blame for our incompetence, but the FT confirms I was right:

Dr Fisher’s view was that “another couple of weeks” of advance notice about the pandemic would not have helped many countries. He pointed out that despite it being confirmed that the virus could be transmitted from person to person on January 20, “it’s not like [everyone] jumped up and sprang into action”.

That’s the understatement of the year!

“Most of Asia really respected this, had systems ready to go, and did a lot of work in January and February for the day that was coming when they were going to get smashed,” said Dr Fisher. “Unfortunately, most of the rest of the world needed to get smashed to have that realisation. As we said in our February [WHO China delegation] report, this virus can have devastating health, social and economic effects but the world is not ready, in capacity or in mindset, to deal with it.”

Prof Wang added that for all of the Chinese system’s shortcomings in the earliest days and weeks of the outbreak, the rest of the world should have been on high alert. As soon as human-to-human transmission was confirmed and Wuhan went into quarantine a few days later, countries could have prepared themselves for its arrival as effectively as Taiwan and South Korea did, among others.

Most did not. In particular the Trump administration’s response will go down as one of the worst national security failures in the history of the US republic, with the virus breaching even the White House and the president himself. As Prof Wang said: “For other countries not to have taken [the virus] seriously, there’s just no excuse.”

Just to be clear, I’m not blaming Trump for all of this. Hillary would have done somewhat better, but the evidence from Western Europe suggests that the failures go much deeper than Trump. Local governments in the northeastern US also screwed up. Instead, my moral outrage is directed at the West’s attempt to blame China for the Covid crisis.

The Western world is like a huge version of Trump. Recall that Trump famously attributes to other people his own faults—corruption, dishonesty, stupidity, nepotism, laziness, etc. The West claims that China didn’t take the problem seriously enough even though China succeeded against a crisis that was objectively far greater than the crisis faced by Europe and America. We were the ones who didn’t take it seriously.

China was the first place that Covid started spreading, so naturally it spread pretty far before they got a grip on the problem. In contrast, America and Europe had plenty of advanced warning. Yet China was able to control the epidemic under difficult circumstances and the West mostly failed under much easier circumstances.

I suppose one could argue that we shouldn’t be blamed because our culture is so undisciplined. Funny to read anti-Chinese white nationalist bigots in my comment section try to excuse our weak response with claims that the Asian culture is just better organized than our culture. So what’s your point? Are you saying that Asian countries should stop accepting immigrants from shithole countries like the US and UK?

Sorry, I’m not that bigoted against the West. Next to Canada, Australia’s the country that is most similar to America. Germany’s also relatively similar, certainly compared to New Guinea or Burundi. I’m not willing to accept the “our culture is different” excuse. Yes, there are cultural/political reasons why certain countries failed. But we need to look in the mirror and admit that we blew it. And fix it.

By the way, this is just the tip of the iceberg. As Tyler Cowen and Alex Tabarrok relentlessly document, our failure to do challenge studies as well as our shameful bureaucratic delays in rolling out everything from testing kits to vaccines to drugs has delayed the reopening of the economy.

And the Asians told us back in February that we should wear masks. But of course we Westerners are so much smarter than them. We knew that masks don’t work. Right?

I’m also outraged by all the people who claimed that China was covering up the problem, that they could not possibly have it under control. My wife’s spent the past 6 weeks in China, including time spent in Chinese hospitals, and I can assure you they are not covering up anything. There is no Covid epidemic in China. Things are back to normal. (Oh wait, our president insists that my wife is probably a Chinese spy, so I can’t trust her report.)

I’m also thinking of the people who told me that it was folly to wait for a vaccine. I had commenters assuring me that it was inevitable that the whole world get it; it can’t be stopped. Only herd immunity would work.

(BTW, this is separate from the question of whether herd immunity was a good idea. Given how badly we screwed up I’m not sure it would have been much worse. But for Taiwan? Herd immunity would have been insane.)

PS. Another FT article contrasts the testing systems of Germany and the UK, and does a nice job of distinguishing between reasons and excuses.

Roughly 90 per cent of testing in the country is done by self-governing private laboratories. That means Germany has consistently had excess capacity of around half a million tests a week, leaving the system well placed to deal with sudden spikes in demand. One outbreak in the Tönnies meat processing plants in North Rhine-Westphalia in June created a need for 50,000 extra weekly tests as the disease was traced in local communities.

This contrasts with the UK’s system, which was heavily centralised from the start. The government overlooked existing labs in favour of creating five so-called “lighthouse laboratories” — outsourced, purpose-built facilities tasked with processing tens of thousands of tests a day. The sites quickly faced setbacks and have become overwhelmed at several points during the pandemic, creating bottlenecks and delays.

Reasons are not excuses!

PS. This Matt Yglesias tweet caught my eye:

If Trump had read my March 1 post he’d be cruising to re-election. And he still has a 35% chance of winning!

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