China wasn’t much slower than anybody else
China’s government is evil, but stupid seems just as effective. China took 42 precious days to go from its first reported case to an aggressive lockdown. That’s bad, right? If they weren’t so busy censoring doctors it would have saved countless lives.
But then look at western democracies.
With even more information, they also delayed action until it was too late. Italy took 38 days from first reported case to first lockdown. Germany took 55. The US still hasn’t woken up, 65 days later.
You can kill someone by being evil or by being stupid, but what difference does that make to the dead?
Let’s look at some numbers.
I’ve said blame everyone, but some countries actually did it right. Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore, and even Vietnam were organized and had SARS scars and reacted almost instantly. Props to them, the true leaders of the free world.
They are, however, outliers. Most countries reacted slowly. Dead slow.
If you react slowly, then surgical tactics don’t work. You have to amputate your economy to save it. This means lockdowns.
Once shit hits the fan, your reaction time is how quickly you go from being bitten by the zombie to amputating your arm. So that’s the days between first reported case and first nationally-mandated lockdown.
As you can see, every country here has delayed. The US still has no national lockdown, despite now having the worst outbreak in the world. The US and Iran (the country it’s currently genociding through sanctions) are the outliers here. Which is not, I think, how the US thinks of itself. But, I mean, the virus doesn’t care.
If we look at the other countries, they’re usually worse than China. With a free press and democracy, they’re still wasting valuable weeks and ending up dead. They still go through the cycle of denial and delay that their media attributes to Chinese authoritarianism.
Fuck authoritarianism, but in this case, something else is going on.
Governance Is Just Slow
The delay in fighting coronavirus isn’t unique to China. It’s a flaw in governance itself. Actually, it’s not even a flaw. In government, delay is a feature, not a bug.
Think about it. Do you want your government to shut down your economy and lock you in your house? This is ideally an unusual event, and any government has checks and balances designed to prevent such dramatic action or at least slow it down.
Pandemics are hundred-year events that demand a massive and early over-reaction to stop. Governments are not built for this at all. A government is a tanker ship, not a jet ski.
If a government did this sort of radical change often, it would be chaos. You don’t want a tanker ship doing donuts and throwing cargo overboard, you just want it to go straight and not tip over.
Furthermore, any politician’s prime directive is to cover their ass, not to shut down their entire economy because science. The whole system is conservative by design, and conservative means slow to change.
But of course, the virus doesn’t care.
Faced with an exponential pandemic, you have to suddenly retrofit this tanker ship with skis and rockets and start throwing your economy overboard and locking people in their rooms. This takes time. Whether the captain is a dictator or democratically elected, it just takes time.
This is not a problem unique to authoritarian governments. It’s a problem with authority in general.
What About The Outliers?
But then what about the countries that did beat this? And the countries that are still fighting? What makes them different?
It’s not their type of government. It’s information vaccination. As COVID-19 spreads across the world we’re all getting this information, but some countries had it before, from SARS.
These countries didn’t have to spend weeks debating or constructing computer models, they already knew. Those governments could react fast and those citizens understood and went along.
China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Canada, Singapore, and Vietnam all had SARS scars. The US did as well, and experience with Ebola, but President Trump systematically dismantled their pandemic response teams and left them defenseless. South Korea lost 38 people to MERS.
Experience is inoculation. An information vaccination. Societies that deal with an epidemic develop political and cultural anti-bodies that make fighting the next epidemic easier. We’re all getting those anti-bodies now, but unfortunately for much of the world, it’s too late. They’re just getting the disease.
So Don’t Blame China
So don’t just blame China for their slow response. Everyone responded slowly, some of us dead slow. Should China have done better? Should they have listened to instead of censoring doctors? Absolutely.
But this is something we all should have done. So many governments should have listened to doctors and scientists earlier, it wasn’t just China. We’re all still ignoring scientists on other catastrophic risks like climate change. And some people are still in denial about coronavirus, because it just kills Chinese people, or old people — until it’s too late and it comes for them.
There’s a lot of things to blame China for — for their Uyghur concentration camps, for their repression, for their corruption — but on coronavirus, they have actually changed course and led. And they’ve changed course faster than western democracies.
Blaming China is therefore not productive. We must learn what we can from them, criticize where we must, but also take a good look at ourselves. This isn’t the last challenge we’ll face and if all we learn is to blame someone else, we’ve learned nothing at all.
For my graph, I’ve used the first-reported case from the Johns Hopkins ArcGis. For China, I’ve taken 12 December as a rough date. Transmission was likely happening in November but this around when it was first identified and reported.
I’ve defined lockdown as the national government quarantining or otherwise isolating a region or their whole country. For those dates I’ve reference this Guardian article and contemporary news reports.