Paul Krugman: How China Lost the War on Covid

Do you remember that the covid would establish the China as the dominant power in the world? Until mid-2021, my inbox was filled with assertions that China’s apparent success in containing the coronavirus proved the superiority of the Chinese system over Western societies that, as one commentator put it, “have not been able to organize rapidly all citizens around a single objective”.

Right now, however, China struggles, even as other nations more or less return to normal life. China still pursues its zero covid policy, imposing draconian restrictions on day-to-day activities every time new cases emerge. This is creating immense personal pain and contracting the economy; cities under lockdown generate nearly 60% of Chinese GDP.

In early November, many workers reportedly walked out of Foxconn’s giant factory that makes iPhones, fearing not only being locked out but the possibility of starvation. And in recent days, many Chinese in cities across the country have faced harsh repression to demonstrate against government policies.

People gather to protest Chinese government's continuation of zero-Covid policies
People gather to protest Chinese government’s continuation of zero-Covid policies Photograph: Josh Edelson/AFP

I’m no China expert and have no idea where this is going. And as far as I can tell, neither do real China experts. But I think it’s worth asking what lessons we can glean from China’s journey from supposedly ideal model to failure.

Crucially, the lesson is not that we shouldn’t pursue public health measures in the face of a pandemic. Sometimes such measures are necessary. But governments must be able to change policy in the face of changing circumstances and new evidence🇧🇷

And what we’re seeing in China is a problem peculiar to autocratic governments, which cannot admit mistakes and won’t accept evidence they don’t like.

In the first year of the pandemic, strong, even draconian, restrictions made sense. It was never realistic to imagine that mandatory mask wearing and even lockdowns were able to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. What the measures achieved was to slow the pace of spread.

At the beginning, the objective United States and in many other countries it was to “flatten the curve”, avoiding a spike in cases that would overwhelm their health systems. So, once it became clear that effective vaccines would become available, the goal was — or should have been — to prevent infections until widespread vaccination of the population could protect them.

We’ve seen this strategy in action in places like New Zealand and Taiwan, which initially imposed strict rules, which kept the case and death rates at very low levels, and then, once their populations were widely vaccinated, relaxed these measures. Even with vaccines, the opening caused a large increase in the number of cases and deaths – but not nearly as serious as it would have occurred if these countries had previously relaxed the rules; so that its overall death rate per capita was much lower than in the US.

Chinese leaders, however, seem to have believed that lockdowns would permanently stop the coronavirus and have acted as if they still believed it, even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

At the same time, China has absolutely failed to develop a plan b. Many older Chinese — the most vulnerable group — are still not fully vaccinated. China has also refused to use foreign-made vaccines, even though the vaccines it produces, which do not use mRNA technology, are less effective than those given in the rest of the world.

Workers wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) are seen at the entrance to a residential area blocked off due to coronavirus restrictions in Beijing on November 29, 2022
Workers wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) are seen at the entrance to a residential area blocked off due to coronavirus restrictions in Beijing on November 29, 2022 Photograph: Noel Celis/AFP

All this leaves the Xi Jinping into a trap of his own making. The zero covid policy is obviously unsustainable, but ending it would mean tacitly admitting error, which is never easy for autocrats. And relaxing the rules would result in a huge increase in the numbers of cases and deaths.

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In addition to many of the most vulnerable Chinese not having been vaccinated or having been inoculated with inferior immunizers, because the coronavirus has been suppressed, few Chinese have developed natural immunity, and China has very few intensive care beds, which nullifies its ability to cope with a spike in infections.

It is a nightmare that no one knows how it will end. But what can the rest of the world learn from China?

First, that autocracy is really not superior to democracy. Autocrats are capable of acting quickly and decisively, but they are also capable of making big mistakes, because no one can tell them they are wrong. At a fundamental level, there is a clear similarity between Xi’s refusal to back away from the Covid-zero policy and Vladimir Putin’s debacle in Ukraine.

Second, we are seeing that it is important for leaders to be open to evidence and willing to change course when they are shown to be wrong.

Ironically, in the US, the politicians whose dogmatism most resembles that of Chinese leaders are right-wing Republicans. China rejected foreign mRNA vaccines despite clear evidence of their superiority; many Republican leaders have generally rejected vaccines, even in the face of high death rates associated with low vaccination rates in their constituencies. This contrasts with the attitude of the Democrats, who have generally gone along the lines of the New Zealand approach, albeit much less effectively – restrictions at first, relaxed as vaccination spread.

In short, what we can learn from China is more than the failure of specific policies: it is that we must be wary of would-be autocrats who insist, regardless of the evidence, that they are always right. / TRANSLATION BY GUILHERME RUSSO

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