The only really certain thing the world has learned from the coronavirus outbreak so far is that the global economy’s deep dependence on China carries some serious risks.
Even as it has modernized its industry, China’s government has remained an authoritarian antique — and fundamentally incompetent at handling this public health crisis.
Its dysfunction first allowed COVID-19 to spread: Though the first case surfaced Dec. 8, the health commission in Wuhan province didn’t issue an official notice for weeks afterward as local officials pooh-poohed the seriousness of the epidemic and even suppressed news coverage.
Dr. Li Wenliang started spreading the word in medical circles — and was arrested along with seven other doctors for “fabricating, disseminating and spreading rumors” and forced to sign a “confession” before he could go back to work.
Beijing didn’t alert the World Health Organization until Dec. 31. And through Jan. 5, Wuhan’s leaders kept telling citizens the evidence didn’t even show the bug could be transmitted among humans — as state censors suppressed news to the contrary.
When the first deaths hit, the central government stomped in, trying to quarantine the entire province of 35 million people, followed by quarantines of millions more as the disease nonetheless spread.
Western public-health officials are near-unanimous that mass quarantines (as opposed to isolating people who actually have the bug) are hopeless in the case of airborne illnesses. They can even increase the spread within quarantined areas.
Travel bans can have some value in slowing the spread. But the most important thing is to get the public fully informed as early as possible — the opposite of China’s initial approach.
All this brought a massive drop in China’s production and export of everything from auto parts to pharmaceuticals and face masks — massively disrupting global supply chains that had grown dependent on a country ruled by incompetent thugs.
On top of all that, no one can trust the data out of China: Beijing routinely and systematically lies about anything that might touch on national pride. So we still have no good idea of how deadly COVID-19 is, nor how rapidly it will spread. The world has plenty of reason to fear, but a shortage of facts.
Certainty about the broken supply chains plus uncertainty about the world health threat have sent global stock markets plummeting.
When the West dropped its barriers to trade with China in the early ’90s, it figured globalization would lead to a more open society and government there. That proved false some time ago — but only now is the full price becoming plain.
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