China’s Useful Covid Lesson – WSJ

Relentless population-wide testing, requiring whole cities to wait in line several times a week, is a leverage any Western society would have a hard time achieving. But it created a real possibility of catching enough cases of even a highly contagious virus to quash its spread before it becomes uncontainable.

This is a valuable lesson if the world ever faces an easily spreading virus whose death rate is an order of magnitude greater than we’ve been prepared to tolerate with the flu or, as events have shown, were prepared to tolerate with Covid-19.

Put this lesson in the bank. Also pretty clear, such steps are unsustainable in the case of a merely flu-like disease, and I doubt they will ever be tried again, even by the Chinese Communist Party.

Predictably, America’s graceless muddling also looks more defensible as China’s experiment ends in chaos. The sole intervention of any great precedential value still seems to be our speedy development of mRNA vaccines, which China, in an irony, rejected for its own people.

But the

Xi Jinping

regime has also proved rational after all. Political optimization was always the goal. It wasn’t trying to optimize for healthcare capacity prior to reopening. It wasn’t optimizing for peak immunity given an evolving virus and imperfect vaccines.

To keep itself in power, the regime will now shift from managing public discontent over lockdowns to managing public anger over rampant death and failing healthcare.

Underlying the switch,

Mike Ryan

of the World Health Organization explained last week that the surge filling Beijing’s hospitals is the cause, not the consequence, of the country’s big policy switch. China had already lost control of the virus.

The circle is complete. It was the same Dr. Ryan who offered a surprised endorsement of China’s Covid strategy in March 2020, suggesting against all expectations that a flu-like virus was being corralled and eliminated. The respected medical site StatNews declared that a “dogma” was overturned, namely that flu-like diseases must be endured.

Oh those happy days, they weren’t built to last. Just weeks later Dr. Ryan would be touting Sweden as a more realistic model for a world that would live with the coronavirus rather than defeat it.

In a moment symbolic of an instinct among public figures to protect their “brands” from the inevitable Covid disaster instead of giving honest guidance, a

New York Times

columnist was still thunderously demanding months later that the Trump administration achieve Chinese results without resorting to Chinese methods. Unfortunately, in a loss for humanity, he failed to explain how this was to be done.

China will lowball its Covid deaths now but it won’t recapitulate our seminal folly. This was the constant dunning of the public with a “confirmed cases” measure that grossly under-represented how quickly the virus was spreading. The consequences were not just the absurd pouring of resources into hopeless contact-tracing efforts. The media enjoyed insinuating that the virus was stoppable but for the criminal incompetence of our leaders in the face of a disease that killed 2%, 3%, 4% of those infected (when accurate data would have shown the death rate closer to the flu’s 0.1%).

The public was consistently bamboozled to believe, as a University of Southern California survey showed, the virus both harder to catch and deadlier than it was. This led to bad decisions that likely contributed to the late 2020 surge, as described by the Covid States Project. And what to say about a media that can live through Covid, having the reality of mild and asymptomatic spread shoved in its face everyday, and still understand nothing about it?

Early in the pandemic, I picked on Vice President

Mike Pence

for failing to level with the American people: The government could not save them from having to encounter the virus and adapt to its existence. Perhaps understandably, he and other politicians judged voters would reject and punish them if they sounded like they were giving up the fight.

The Washington Post last week quoted the incomparable wisdom of a young Chinese businesswoman: “It is impossible to lock everyone up at home and lock them up forever, right? What should come will come. . . . You have to take this path, and everyone has to take this step, so that China can get on with normal work and life.”

Words like these would have helped the American people make better informed, more rational decisions, especially when waiting for a vaccine to arrive, about how to get themselves and their loved ones through a Covid trial that could not be avoided.

It pains some of my readers to see our pandemic experience analyzed in cold-eyed fashion, recognizing political imperatives. They are mistaken. Next time, we will be able to expect better from ourselves, and empower our politicians to expect better from us, by growing up about the lessons of the last few years.

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