China’s zero-Covid policies have recently come under criticism from public-health leaders—including those at the World Health Organization—who once held them up as a model for the West.
“China’s success rests largely with a strong administrative system that it can mobilise in times of threat, combined with the ready agreement of the Chinese people to obey stringent public health procedures,” the Lancet editorialized on March 7, 2020. Western countries, it added, “must abandon their fears of the negative short-term public and economic consequences that may follow from restricting public freedoms as part of more assertive infection control measures.”
That hasn’t worn well. The negative social and economic consequences of lockdowns in the West—from learning losses and destroyed small businesses to alcoholism and drug abuse—weren’t “short-term.” Nor were China’s draconian zero-Covid policies, which three years later are only slowly being eased.
A charitable explanation is that China’s Communist Party bamboozled Western public-health officials by projecting competence and control. The National Institutes of Health sent deputy director Clifford Lane to China in February 2020 on a World Health Organization mission to assess the situation on the ground. “The Chinese were managing this in a very structured, organized way,” he explained in an April 2020 NIH newsletter.
“Dr. Lane was very impressed about how, from a clinical public health standpoint, the Chinese were handling the isolation, the contact tracing, the building of facilities to take care of people, and that’s what I believed he meant when he said [they] were managing this in a very structured, organized way,” Anthony Fauci stated during a deposition last month.
Yet one merely needed to pick up a newspaper or scroll the web to learn otherwise. “Lisa Wang was fighting a high fever when she was turned away from an overflowing hospital in Wuhan,” CNN reported on Feb. 23, 2020. “A chest scan showed her lungs were infected, but she couldn’t get treated for the novel coronavirus she likely had because there weren’t enough beds at the Wuhan Third Hospital, a doctor told her. Instead, she was given medication and instructed to self-quarantine at home.” Later, she was “forced into a makeshift quarantine center at a technology park—putting her at risk of cross-infection with hundreds of other patients warehoused in the bare-bones facility.”
Chinese who contracted or were exposed to the virus were forced into isolation centers, which weren’t as pleasant as tuberculosis sanitariums a century ago. “Bags of garbage, including unfinished meals and used masks, were piling up on the floor, and no medicine or treatment were provided to patients apart from daily temperature checks,” CNN reported. “There was no central heating inside.”
Yet by Dr. Fauci’s account, Dr. Lane concluded that “the Chinese had a very organized way of trying to contain the spread in Wuhan and elsewhere,” even though he never visited Wuhan.
China’s three years of coercion and suppression of its people show why political debate on public-health issues is essential. If elites are so enamored with China’s command-and-control model, they should move there.
The lessons here extend far beyond the CCP. China’s experiment shows that even with an extreme disregard for liberty, human dignity and privacy, lockdowns fail and the virus wins. Milder lockdowns, as pursued elsewhere, never stood a chance. All they achieved was to kick the pandemic can a few risible yards down the road and to encourage variants that spread more efficiently. For instance, the Alpha strain, the first to be labelled a variant of concern by the WHO, began its expansion during the UK’s second lockdown in November 2020.
Some supporters of lockdown still point to the examples of Taiwan, Korea, Australia and New Zealand. It is argued that can-kicking lockdowns can work if a country isolates itself, giving time for a vaccine to be developed and deployed – and that China has simply failed to grasp this opportunity. While the gains of such an approach would always be uncertain – the considerable costs are not. The US tried to isolate itself with border closures in early 2020 and failed. Melbourne, in ‘successfully isolated’ Australia, endured more days of lockdown than any other city worldwide while developing a police force that would embarrass a Central American junta. Moreover, the success of ‘warp-speed’ vaccine development remains uncertain for future pandemics.
The unavoidable truth is that lockdowns caused vast collateral damage. To the economy. To relationships. To education. To mental health. To the work ethic. To our equilibria with other pathogens – from influenza to Group A Streptococcus. Persistent excess non-Covid mortality is currently being recorded across Europe, the US and Australia, thanks to illnesses that were neglected while health systems were obsessed with Covid. If this continues for another year – and it shows little sign of abating – non-Covid excess deaths could begin, country by country, to exceed those attributed to Covid.
The brutal truth is that humans, like other mammals, are prey to occasional respiratory pandemics, as in 1889-94 (Russian flu), 1957-58 (Asian flu), 1968-69 (Hong Kong flu) and, worst of all, the 1918-19 (Spanish flu). In the past we sweated them, protecting our vulnerable as best we could, tending our sick and mourning our dead. Otherwise, life continued. There was no lasting economic or social harm. This approach was still advocated in the influenza-preparedness strategies drawn up by the UK Department of Health in 2011 and the World Health Organisation in 2019.
Yet, in 2020, country after country adopted a different, untested course. Perhaps we pivoted because Wuhan’s lockdown seemed to work and because influential scientific and media opinion demanded we follow suit. Regardless, the resulting damage is unprecedented, both in China and the West.
[DBx: Never forget that Imperial College’s hypocritical ‘scientist’ – or ‘modeler’ – Neil Ferguson explicitly cited Beijing’s authoritarianism as the model for lockdowns of the sort that he desired in the west. What a scourge has Ferguson proven to be to civilization.]
I spent the afternoon yesterday at Twitter HQ at the invitation of @elonmusk to find out more about the trend “blacklist” that twitter placed on me & more. A short thread on what I found out follows.
The federal government stayed out of roads (but not railroads) until late in the 19thcentury. The impetus for its involvement came from a lobbying group called the League of American Wheelmen (LAW). The “wheelmen” were bicycling enthusiasts who wanted governments to improve the roads. LAW was led by a Civil War officer named Albert Augustus Pope, who happened to have gotten in on the fad for cycling in a big way—he manufactured bicycles. Cycling would be much more enjoyable if our rutted roads were improved. And he’d sell more.
The LAW wanted both state and federal action. They were opposed by farmers, who didn’t want any further taxes for roads that they generally regarded as satisfactory for their needs. In one of the many intriguing bits of history in Highway Heist, Bennett explains that in those days, the upkeep of roads was mostly a local matter. Inhabitants were expected to devote a few days each year to road upkeep. This in-kind “tax” was perfectly acceptable to the farming community and it was able to fend off LAW’s legislation for a number of years.
But not, of course, indefinitely.
What eventually broke the back of the opposition to federal meddling with the roads was that language about “post roads” lurking in the Constitution. In the late 19th century, the Post Office began to offer Rural Free Delivery, thus saving country-folk the trouble of having to go into the nearest town to get mail. The catch was that RFD would only be offered on roads deemed good enough to be “post roads.” Thus did the federal camel get its nose under the road construction tent.
Although Bennett doesn’t mention this, many of the country’s earliest roads were built by private enterprise. (There was no reason for him to do so, since his book is only about the intrusion of government into road building.) When good-quality roads became commercially important, profit-seeking firms were there to provide them. As we read in this article in Access magazine, “During the 19th century more than 2,000 private companies financed, built, and operated toll roads. A glimpse at our history may provide a useful perspective on today’s budding toll-road movement. Private road companies in the 19th century answered an urgent community need, where the government couldn’t, and they did it with creativity and imagination.”
Scott Winship asks: “How much would creating a Child Allowance reduce work among parents?” Here’s his conclusion:
The evidence remains consistent with the Chicago team’s claims: a permanent expansion of the CTC that resembles the temporary child allowance created in 2021 could reduce employment among single mothers by about one million, an effect that would go a long ways toward reversing the employment gains among single mothers since the policy reforms of the mid-1990s.
Jeff preferred markets to government not because markets are more rational or more efficient but because they are easier to escape. Markets allow for a greater possibility of exit. And the ability to leave counterproductive, hazardous, or perverse conditions is a guarantor of freedom that also creates opportunities for innovation and improvement. Jeff’s classroom at NYU was where I first heard of A.O. Hirschman’s Exit, Voice, and Loyalty, and where I first encountered Schumpeter’s aphorism, “The picture of the prettiest girl that ever lived will in the long run prove powerless to maintain the sales of a bad cigarette.”