For eight years, China’s President Xi Jinping has trumpeted his country’s increasingly authoritarian system as a grand model for other developing countries to follow. No doubt, China has seen an extraordinary period of economic growth, which has benefited hundreds of millions in China and around the world. But authoritarianism has also come at great costs, as the rapid spread of the novel coronavirus underscores.
In two months, the virus has spread throughout China and beyond. More than 60,000 people have been reported infected, and nearly 1,400 have died as a consequence of the disease. These numbers are likely to vastly understate the true extent of its spread and impact. The numbers inside China are bound to be much higher, and the lack of reports from Africa, the Middle East and South America are more likely due to faltering health care systems rather than its absence altogether.
We may never know if the spread of the new virus could have been prevented by earlier, concerted action. But the fact that China chose secrecy and inaction turned the possibility of an epidemic into a reality.
The first instance of a new pneumonialike disease in Wuhan, an industrial city of 11 million people, emerged in early December. By the end of the month, doctors in Wuhan noticed an increased number of sick people with symptoms similar to the SARS outbreak that had killed nearly 800 people in 2002-03. The patients were quarantined, and the Wuhan health commission issued a public notice stressing no cause for alarm. The infections were traced to a live-animal food market, which was shut down on Jan. 1, and the genetic sequence of a new coronavirus was identified two days later.
Official communications stressed that there was no reason to believe the disease could be spread among humans, and the authorities cracked down hard on any medical warnings that appeared on social media. In one notable case, a WeChat post by Dr. Li Wenliang to colleagues that patients at his hospital had been quarantined with SARS-like symptoms, was dismissed as “illegal acts of fabricating, spreading rumors, and disrupting social order.” (Dr. Li later contracted the disease and died.)
Chinese authorities waited for a month after the first case to notify the World Health Organization about the new coronavirus, thus delaying concerted efforts to understand the virus, its transmissibility and lethality among infectious disease specialists around the world. Even so, from Jan. 2 to Jan. 18, China did not report any new cases and continued to downplay its severity. As the number of hospitalizations mounted in Wuhan, officials went ahead with a New Year banquet for 40,000 people.
Only when new cases were reported outside Hubei province on Jan. 20 did the Chinese authorities decide to act. Within days, Hubei province, home to 50 million people, was quarantined, with no travel allowed.
But it was too late. The disease had spread around the country and the world. Within Wuhan, reports of new cases and deaths grew exponentially — from just a hundred infected patients and deaths in single digits in mid-January, to tens of thousands of reported cases and hundreds of death a few weeks later. Yet, even though Chinese authorities finally acknowledged the severity of the situation, Beijing did not allow a WHO investigating team to enter China until this week and still declines offers by the United States and other countries to send all the experts needed to help combat the disease.
Authoritarian political systems don’t do well when confronting unexpected crises, especially those like infectious diseases that require a rapid local response. They disempower officials at the lower rungs. The firmer the control at the top, the less likely the initiative from the bottom. Dangers go unreported and those who speak out, like Dr. Li, are quickly punished as a clear sign to others to stay in line.
But when it comes to infectious diseases, top-down approaches fail. In fact, they make things worse, by delaying actions that could otherwise prevent the spread of the disease. Only if people are empowered to take the initiative can quick action be taken.
When the first coronavirus patient in the United States presented himself in Snohomish County, Washington, Hollianne Bruce didn’t wait for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to confirm the disease. The epidemiologist assigned to the county immediately traced everyone the patient had been in contact with and urged them to remain in isolation for 14 days to prevent the disease from spreading. So far, it hasn’t.
Authoritarians are good at ducking responsibility and shifting blame. And no doubt Xi Jinping will survive this latest crisis and remain fully in charge of the country. But people inside and out of China will have noticed that secrecy and control can be deadly, and will begin to question whether the system is in fact as effective as China’s leaders make it out to be.
Ivo Daalder is president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and a former U.S. ambassador to NATO.