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The Reality of China’s Virus

Summary:
Recently on twitter, videos of the Wuhan Coronavirus Hospitals being built in 8 days have been circulating. Of course, when you have a command economy you can complete certain tasks very quickly. There’s no local consultation or planning permission to fill out - if the party wants it, it’s done. While some may hail this a triumph of socialism, it’s important to distinguish between the surface and what lies beneath it. Of course a totalitarian state does have its advantages. It is fairly free to quarantine a city the size of London, surrounding it with troops so no-one gets out. Doctors and nurses can be forced to work overtime. Stricter censorship (supposedly) prevents mass panic. Of course this is not the case. Speculation through word of mouth fills the void that little official news has

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Recently on twitter, videos of the Wuhan Coronavirus Hospitals being built in 8 days have been circulating. Of course, when you have a command economy you can complete certain tasks very quickly. There’s no local consultation or planning permission to fill out - if the party wants it, it’s done. While some may hail this a triumph of socialism, it’s important to distinguish between the surface and what lies beneath it. 

Of course a totalitarian state does have its advantages. It is fairly free to quarantine a city the size of London, surrounding it with troops so no-one gets out. Doctors and nurses can be forced to work overtime. Stricter censorship (supposedly) prevents mass panic. 

Of course this is not the case. Speculation through word of mouth fills the void that little official news has left. Internal communication, particularly between doctors restricts the ability to react to the crisis.  

When the SARS epidemic ended there were still a number of people who were not recognised in official statistics. Suppressing the number of cases and deaths makes the government look better. 

China is admittedly less stonewalling than they were in the SARS outbreak. As Cindy Yu reports, back then, keeping face was so crucial that doctors hid patients inside ambulances away from WHO inspectors. This time Xi Jinping has declared any officials caught in a cover up would be ‘nailed on the pillar of shame for eternity’. Of course there is a difference between not reporting accurately to your superiors, and the top down suppression of reports. Performance in dealing with the crisis is not as important as demonstrating loyalty and saving face for the government. 

These priorities both for officials and government itself ensures that the priority of saving lives is sidelined. Of course you could argue, any government in such a situation wants to maintain popularity to stay in power. But in a totalitarian regime, where facts are tweaked and suppressed, the incentives are much worse. The Chinese regime has a deadly calculus put before it, weighing up between suppressing numbers to save face or stopping the pandemic and potentially more deaths. A public choice theory disaster played to the extremes. 

It would be nice to say, “well let’s wait and see how they manage it” as many reporters say. But if we still do not know the whole story about how the government managed SARS there’s no guarantee we will know how they managed this pandemic. Worse still, if another pandemic arrives down the line then we will not be anywhere closer to learning from past mistakes. 

It would be nice to counter the propaganda videos circulating with facts about how well the government is managing the crisis but sadly this is not possible. All this proves to demonstrate the risks of a state that plays by its own rules, and is unaccountable to the very people it is supposed to serve.

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