China’s zero-Covid policy has recently been criticized by public health leaders – including those at the World Health Organization – who once upheld it as a model for the West.
“China’s success rests in large part on a strong administrative system it can mobilize in times of threat, combined with the Chinese people’s willing consent to uphold strict public health procedures,” wrote The Lancet on March 7, 2020. Western countries, it added, “must end their fears of the negative short-term public and economic consequences that could result from restricting public liberties in the context of more assertive infection control measures.”
That didn’t wear well. The negative social and economic consequences of lockdowns in the West – from lost learning and devastated small businesses to alcoholism and drug abuse – were not “short-term”. Neither has China’s draconian zero-Covid policy, which is only slowly being eased three years later.
As New York hospitals filled, public health experts flattered China’s alleged command and control of Covid. Eric Topol, director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute and one of the media’s most cited diatribes on public health, tweeted on March 27, 2020 that “With four times the population of the United States, China has been able to flatten its curve.” . He added, “Our (US) lack of learning from a region hit months ahead of us is striking.”
dr Topol still insists China’s repressive policies “worked well until containment of Omicron became impossible,” although most people now acknowledge they were socially and economically unsustainable. However, many still won’t admit that Western democracies made a mistake in following China’s strategy. Why did they think it was a good idea?
A charitable explanation is that the Chinese Communist Party duped Western public health officials by projecting competence and control. The National Institutes of Health sent Deputy Director Clifford Lane on a World Health Organization mission to China in February 2020 to assess the situation on the ground. “The Chinese have handled this in a very structured and organized way,” he explained in an April 2020 NIH newsletter.
“DR Lane was very impressed with how the Chinese have been dealing with isolation, contact tracing and building facilities to care for people from a clinical public health perspective and I thought that was what he meant when he said [they] handled this in a very structured and organized way,” Anthony Fauci said during a statement last month.
But all you had to do was pick up a newspaper or scroll the internet to find out something else. “Lisa Wang was battling a high fever as she was turned away from a crowded Wuhan hospital,” CNN reported on Feb. 23, 2020. “A chest scan showed her lungs were infected, but she could not be treated for the novel coronavirus, which she probably had because there weren’t enough beds at Wuhan Third Hospital, a doctor told her. Instead, she was given medication and told to self-quarantine at home.” She was later “forced into a makeshift quarantine center at a technology park — putting her at risk of cross-infection with hundreds of other patients living in the bare-bones equipment were stored”.
Chinese who contracted or were exposed to the virus were forced into isolation centers that weren’t as comfortable as tuberculosis sanatoriums a century ago. “Bags of trash, including unfinished meals and used masks, were piled on the floor, and no medication or treatment was provided to patients other than daily temperature checks,” CNN reported. “There was no central heating inside.”
But after Dr. Fauci’s report came to Dr. Lane concluded that “the Chinese had a very organized way of trying to contain the spread in Wuhan and elsewhere,” although he never visited Wuhan.
A report by the WHO-China Joint Mission on February 28, 2020 hailed the country’s Covid response as the “most ambitious, agile and aggressive disease containment effort in history”. It commended the Chinese people’s “deep commitment to collective action in the face of this common threat.”
The report also commended China for its high-tech population surveillance methods: “New technologies such as the use of big data and artificial intelligence (AI) have been applied to strengthen contact tracing and management of priority populations.”
But public health officials in the West may not have been fooled by China’s virus control demonstrations, but instead were envious of his government’s ability to subdue its citizens and censor social media users who ask questions. “There is no right to lie,” wrote Lancet Editor-in-Chief Richard Horton in a February 22, 2022 editorial. “In well-defined cases, governments should have the power to censor lies and untruths.” In practice, that means any deviation from the orthodoxy of public health. Look no further than Dr. Topol, who called this column’s most recent explainer about the shortcomings of bivalent boosters “deceptive” and offered nothing to back up the claim.
China’s three years of coercion and repression of its people shows why a political debate on public health issues is essential. If the elites are so enamored with China’s command-and-control model, that’s where they should go.
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