COVID-19 is not going away. Indeed, in China, in recent weeks, the pandemic has leapt from nowhere to dominate social media, even appearing once more on official news channels.
While waves of the pandemic have spread around the world over the last two years or more, taking lives, denting economies and fuelling social dissent, China has been insulated by strong public health measures – the ‘dynamic zero-COVID policy’.
When the virus was first identified in Wuhan, and the genetic code cracked and shared globally, the city was placed under lockdown. This measure was described as “draconian,” “repressive” and “heavy-handed” by Western media. It seemed unlikely that similar policies would be practiced globally.
Yet, by May 2020, 90 percent of nation states had some form of stay-at-home recommendations in place, and these were compulsory – at least nominally – in 80 percent of countries. National lockdowns were imposed in many countries including Britain, France, and Italy. Even in the USA, where not wearing a facemask was to become a totem of human freedom and individual liberty, seven states adopted lockdowns, as did cities such as New York and Kansas City. The lockdown in California lasted for 453 days.
Much has been written about the effectiveness of lockdowns and associated policies. In their 2021 book Coronavirus Politics, Scott Greer and colleagues (2021) report that policy implementation was extremely effective in China, Singapore and Vietnam, but they did not conclude that democratic countries generally performed less well: “it is hard to see why we would expect that a lack of public accountability and open debate would reliably produce better policy implementation”.
However, after conducting a very careful econometric causal analysis, Yusuke Narita and Ayumi Sudo (2021), scholars from Yale, concluded that democracy itself was responsible for an extra 279 COVID-19 deaths per million in 2020, mostly due ‘to weaker and narrower containment policies at the beginning of the outbreak’.
Bloomberg’s much-quoted COVID Resilience Ranking in November 2021 singled out seven countries for praise: Canada; Denmark; Finland; Norway; South Korea: Switzerland and the U.A.E. It concluded that:
‘Strong healthcare safety nets and societal cohesion are common denominators among the seven, qualities that advantaged them at every stage of the pandemic. Faith in government and a willingness to follow rules helped with containing the virus, while these countries’ relative wealth meant they had the buying power to snap up the first supplies of vaccines.’
Rational though this description may seem, the scale could validly be criticised for its arbitrary choice of metrics, the simple additive scale, and the heavily skewed distribution of resultant scores. Importantly, the Resilience Ranking has served the global blame and shame game. In June 2021, the USA topped the ranking at a time when it still had the largest number of deaths. In the June 2022 version, mainland China, Taiwan and Hong Kong occupy three of the bottom six positions (along with Pakistan, the Philippines and Russia ). The cumulative deathrates for China, Taiwan and Hong Kong are respectively 3, 179 and 1,243 deaths per million compared with 2,631 and 3,038 for the UK and USA.
The Reliance Ranking gives far too little weight to keeping people safe from Covid-19. It implicitly supports the over-purchase of vaccines and does not even measure the faith in government and willingness to follow rules it recognises as having protect people and economies.
China’s control of the pandemic has brought it great benefits. The economy grew by two per cent in 2020 while most advanced economies contracted and, by 2021, growth was at eight percent, two or three per cent ahead of its Western rivals. Indeed, by mid-2020 life had returned to normal for most Chinese. Memories of lockdown were prompted only by automatic temperature checks at shop entrances, a greater prevalence of mask wearing even when pollution levels were low, and a phone app that monitored travel, issued warnings of nearby infection, and acted as a pass into shopping malls and closed spaces. There has been no criticism of government since there appeared to be no need.
With the outbreak of the Omicron variant in Shanghai, and over 500,000 million infections since late February, much is changing except the policy. Blame is back. In Wuhan, in December 2019, local officials were blamed for hesitation, then southern migrants for eating wild animals, then all Wuhaners for being Wuhaners, then – in the Western media – the Chinese government for a cover-up and lab-leaks (still unproven), and then, on the streets of America, all Asians for being Chinese.
Now it is (again) local officials blamed for hesitating too long before lockdown, but also shoppers for panic buying and supermarkets for being unprepared. It is seniors being blamed for not getting vaccinated, for being seniors and especially for having an underlying illness; they are people ‘who are not rid of the grim risk posed by the virus’. Now, it is the Shanghai administration blamed for letting it happen and Shanghai for being connected to the outside world and having ‘14 municipal highways and seven national expressways connecting to other big cities’. Shanghai is quarantined, but ‘now quarantine Shanghai!’
No blame is attached to Beijing. The emperor rules because the emperor is virtuous. There is certainly not equivalent of ‘Partygate’ but then, equally, there is no hint of the blatant hypocrisy evident among Britain’s ruling elite. But there is acknowledgement, from one as senior as Ma Xiaowei, Minister of the National Health Commission, that ‘China’s medical resources are insufficient in general and could collapse if the virus runs rampant’.
Perhaps it is not only blame that attaches to COVID-19 but fear as well.
 Cumulative deathrates for Pakistan, the Philippines and Russia are 135, 544 and 2,552 per million.
Robert Walker, Beijing Normal University and Lichao Yang, Beijing Normal University
1st August 2022
Greer, S. King, E. . Massard da Fonseca, E and Peralta-Santos, A. (Editors) .2021.Coronavirus Politics: The Comparative Politics and Policy of COVID-19 Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press
Narita, Y. and Sudo, A. 2021 The Curse of Democracy: Evidence from the 21st Century. New Haven: Yale University. https://arxiv.org/pdf/2104.07617.pdf