Since the earliest days of the Covid-19 pandemic, American news media has been rife with stories about how China handled – or according to many of the reports, mishandled – the initial outbreak. The most recent is a story in the New York Times, A Year After Wuhan, China Tells a Tale of Triumph (and No Mistakes). On the surface, it is the story of China’s “whitewashing” of the early days of the pandemic. But simmering just below is an unmistakable sentiment of anti-Chinese propaganda.
There is some truth to the picture the Times story paints, as there is to other stories that point out missteps by the Chinese government in the early days. But beyond the grains of truth the story serves as an attack on how the Chinese handled the Covid-19 pandemic and avoids the ultimate reality: Despite experiencing the world’s first major epidemic, China has controlled Covid-19 since mid-spring better than almost any other country, snuffing out sporadic outbreaks that enter from a Covid-19 riddled world.
I decry the stubborn resistance of most governments and people to acknowledge and to learn from China’s success. For most, their resistance is led by ignorance. China’s successes are not widely known and rarely covered by the US and international media. For others who are more well informed, it is willful disregard of an important public health achievement that we should all be learning from. When this negligence comes from our government representatives, it borders on dereliction of their public health duty.
As one who frequently speaks to the national and international media about Covid-19, I try to shine the light on China’s success in hopes others can learn from it. Speaking to US, European, Middle Eastern, Indian outlets, a mention of China brings two immediate, knee-jerk, responses: You can’t believe their numbers, can you? And if the numbers are true, hasn’t it only been possible because of their totalitarian regime? Even my eight old grandson parrots this feeble defense.
Yes, I do believe China’s numbers, in part because of personal experience and the stories from my colleagues in China who describe their Covid-free daily lives.
And no, China’s success in containing Covid-19 is not the consequence of totalitarianism. It is the consequence of a government that has learned to protect its people from pandemic tragedies. China is following a rulebook they first learned in large part at the Harvard School of Public Health following SARS. That China applied these lessons while we did not is a lasting embarrassment and tragedy for the nearly 400,000 lives lost, the one million-plus of our citizens who are scarred for life from their encounter with Covid-19, and for so many of us who have mourned the loss of family members and friends.