By Ben Goldson
Although both sides would deny it, the spread of COVID-19 has highlighted the weaknesses of two systems of governance as represented by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the United States of America.
Having emerged, by most accounts, in the city of Wuhan, COVID-19 has since gone global, with more than ten million recorded cases as of writing. For much of the world, where sudden outbreaks of unfamiliar diseases are expected to be managed in the distant regions where they arise, the speed with which COVID-19 has intruded upon even the most affluent sectors of the globe is unlike anything in living memory. At the international level, the pandemic has seen existing tensions between China and the United States escalate further, with each side citing the apparent failure of each other’s responses as evidence of the wider inferiority of their respective systems of governance. In reality however, COVID-19 has benefitted from the unique weaknesses of both the rigid authoritarianism of the People’s Republic of China and the laissez-faire managerialism of the United States of America, leaving gaps that were quickly exploited by the mysterious new disease.
Watching on is the World Health Organisation (WHO), first notified by Chinese authorities about the mysterious new disease on the last day of 2019. Officially, case zero was recorded around a month before. Disputing this is a study by Harvard researchers, which puts the date months earlier in August, although its reliability has since been challenged. At any rate, word of a new influenza-like disease unresponsive to established treatments had spread amongst Chinese healthcare workers towards the end of the year, before reaching the public in the hours leading up to the government’s move to alert the WHO. Shortly before, a doctor at Wuhan Central Hospital, Li Wenliang, had warned members of a private WeChat group chat about what would come to be labelled COVID-19. Despite requests by Wenliang that the information not be shared further, it was, with the reluctant whistleblower soon warned by police after the government was forced to confirm the rumours.
Wenliang himself died in early February from the disease, joining medical staff around the world in losing his life in the fight against the pandemic. By that point, it was far too late to pretend everything was fine, with the government swinging its might against the virus in what was labelled a “people’s war” by General Secretary Xi Jinping. Already, severe restrictions on movement had been imposed in Wuhan, along with fellow cities in the province of Hubei. Across the country, Chinese New Year celebrations were cancelled ahead of the “Chunyun” period, believed to be the world’s largest annual mass migration. Along with these punitive measures, the authorities have also sought to dramatically bolster their healthcare facilities through state-led intervention. As a result, factories have been repurposed to produce face masks amidst a global shortage, while the People’s Liberation Army has been deployed to support beleaguered medical workers. Most famous however is the construction of Huoshenshan Hospital, completed in just ten days of work which was live-streamed by state broadcaster the China Media Group.
Although this rapid establishment of an entire hospital would subsequently be accused of being an inefficient publicity stunt, it still stands as a feat of public planning which contrasts sharply with the response of the United States. Home to a healthcare system notorious for its deficiencies compared to those of fellow developed nations, America has so far recorded more than 2.6 million cases, around a quarter of the global total. As these numbers are only based on people who actually get tested for the disease, it could well be that the true number is far more. In early March, a report from the Cedars-Sinai Medical Centre estimated that there could have been nearly 10,000 more cases than the 423 reported by the Centres for Disease Control at the time, with the researchers themselves claiming that their conservative methodology meant the number could have been even higher. Potential patients are also required to put themselves forward, a daunting prospect given the ongoing uncertainty about who would cover the cost of treatment, judged to be around US$30,000. Instead, there are likely to be significant numbers of cases going unrecorded by the state without some kind of dramatic intervention, as was the situation for George Floyd, who was found to have been suffering from COVID-19 in an independent autopsy commissioned by his family following his death at the hands of the Minneapolis Police Department.
As a result, the unknown cases are a major impediment for policymakers, who are unable to devise a plan which could actually be tailored to the true scale of the pandemic. Meanwhile, the hospitals at the frontline have reportedly struggled with the increased caseload. Already, there is a looming cash flow crisis from the cancellations of elective surgeries, which provide the bulk of the funding for America’s hospitals. Heavily reliant on protective equipment made in the People’s Republic of China, as is much of the world, the United States simply lacks the sheer manufacturing power that Secretary XJinping has at his disposal, along with the apparent ability to set forward a comprehensive national plan. In its absence, President Trump has ignored the advice of experts, encouraging protests against the restrictions imposed by local authorities. For Chinese state media, the resulting scenes were further evidence of how America, and by extension liberal democracy, has failed to deal with the pandemic compared to Xi Jinping Thought, already codified into the official government ideology. Despite these headlines however, the reality is that COVID-19 may well have been far less of a problem for the world if the authorities hadn’t been so determined to present an image of stability. Even after Xi dramatically reversed this position, China’s dealings with the international community on virus management have been criticised for a lack of transparency, with the authorities rejecting an independent investigation into how the disease was able to spread so quickly. In recent days however, an outbreak in Beijing has poked a large hole in this image of recovery and forced the government to re-impose restrictions on movement in the capital. As with that of the United States then, if for different reasons, the official figures coming out of the PRC are hard to trust, symbolic of how the authorities in charge of the globe’s two largest economies have, in their own way, mishandled the response to a pandemic which has now been reported in much of the world.
Ben Goldson is a news and current affairs broadcaster at 95bFM radio in Auckland.