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Coronavirus (2): Disease and Dictatorship

I'm a little behind in my reading, but an Op-ed written by Frank Snowden, featured in this past Sunday's New York Daily News, is worthy of attention: "China's Coronavirus Gamble: What Should We Learn from Beijing's Draconian Response to Corvid-19?." A few takeaway passages are sobering reminders about how disease can often become the pretext for the advance of draconian dictatorial actions by governments worldwide:


China was Ground Zero for the coronavirus disease now spreading across the planet. Beginning in December and probably before, the virus "spilled over" from its natural reservoir, likely among bats, and infected its first known human hosts --- probably in the context of a "wet" market located at Wuhan in central China. Undetected by the authorities, the virus moved into the community, unleashing an epidemic that now spans the globe, but is ebbing in China itself.

A second epidemic, however, is following closely behind COVID-19 --- a surge of belief in the capacity of dictatorships to deal decisively with medical emergencies, in contrast with the supposed weakness of democracies. In this view, democratic countries are hamstrung by the need to win consent and to move slowly with due regard to law and civil liberties. ...
What is the Chinese model, and how do we measure its success? On Jan. 23, Beijing announced that the city of Wuhan and then the entire province of Hubei would be enclosed by a ring of troops and police who would cordon off some 60 million people in one of the largest public health experiments ever undertaken. All movement in and out of the area --- by plane, boat, rail, and road --- was halted, and severe penalties were mandated for attempts to elude the ring of containment known as a sanitary cordon, a measure originally devised to combat the Black Death, but now implemented on a gigantic scale. ... The measures were enforced by the encouragement and payment of neighbors to spy on neighbors, by loudspeaker and television broadcasts, and by surprise visits from local party officials. Citizens who fell ill were sent to hospitals. ...
Most tellingly, the regime insisted on a monopoly of the dissemination of information. As a result, physicians who sought to protect patients and colleagues by informing them that they faced danger from a virulent and unknown disease were reprimanded and silenced, sometimes dying later from the virus. The most famous case was Dr. Li Wenliang, whose death set off waves of popular indignation. He was seen as the embodiment of an alternative policy that could have empowered both health-care workers and citizens to protect themselves. ...
One problem with a sanitary cordon is that it is a massive logistical undertaking that generates panic among the affected populace. The result is a mass exodus, and the fugitives carry the disease with them. Thus between 2 a.m. on Jan. 23 when Beijing announced its policies, and 10 a.m. when they were implemented, thousands of people escaped Wuhan, thereby propelling the infection outward. Such a massive use of manpower and funds also drains resources from other possible strategies. The history of sanitary cordons indeed suggests that they are so clumsy and difficult to devise that they are invariably implemented too late --- when the disease has already traveled far beyond the intended zone of containment. Even the less coercive lockdown imposed in Italy has opened Pandora's Box, causing mass flight from the North, where coronavirus was rampant, to the South, which seemed a refuge still free of disease. The fugitives transformed the situation by spreading COVID-19 throughout the peninsula. One should therefore ask to what extent "going medieval" is actually self-defeating.
In addition, coercion breaks lines of effective communication between the population and the health-care system, and without timely and accurate information scientific public health becomes impossible. If people with symptoms are motivated to conceal their condition or to flee, the authorities are reduced to operating in the dark. This realization is clearly at the root of a major change of direction when the Chinese regime responded to widespread confusion and resistance to the measures it had imposed. In mid-February, Xi Jinping made a major course correction. This took the form of inviting the active cooperation of the population by means of the rhetorical device that the nation was engaged in an all-out “people’s war” with a microbial invasion, and that the participation of all was required. Here was a case of authoritarianism mimicking democracy. ...
The wager appears to be winning at the moment. But the lesson is that a sound public health strategy to confront COVID-19 demands something better. A response based on scientific planning, the rational allocation of resources and supplies, and open dialogue between authorities and the people --- a dialogue that only publicly accountable authorities can provide --- is a far safer and more reliable model than a hasty display of power.


First, there is a need to put all this into a larger context with regard to the policies of the Chinese government: This is the same government that has maintained concentration camps (euphemistically described as "re-education camps") for nearly two million Muslims, while waging war on those seeking freedom from Beijing's control over the people of Hong Kong. So the "Chinese model" continues to be an authoritarian one, whether it is used to contain people or pandemics.

I don't know all the answers on how to confront a pandemic, but clearly the draconian measures enacted by some of those in power will have an impact that far outlasts the containment of any disease. Most governments have referred to this as a war, but all wars have always been accompanied by a vast increase in the role of the state in ways that never quite go-back to "pre-war" levels. This isn't a call to anarchy (at least not yet...)---but it is a call to vigilance on behalf of human liberty, even in the face of a dreaded disease.