The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion China’s covid policy failed. But don’t get cocky. So did America’s.

A woman in Shanghai reaches through a barricade to receive a package delivery in May. (Chen Si/AP)

China’s response to the covid-19 pandemic is widely acknowledged as a costly failure: Its draconian lockdowns have made it hard for ordinary people to get food or medicine and are depressing economic growth. President Xi Jinping’s “zero covid” policy sparked the biggest protests since 1989 and finally led, on Wednesday, to an easing of testing and quarantine rules in what is an implicit admission of failure by Beijing.

It’s easy for Americans to feel cocky by comparison — particularly those Americans who opposed our much milder lockdowns. We have returned to normal life, more or less, while China is still mired in the pandemic. But this is no time for triumphalism. The United States also failed in dealing with covid. We just failed in very different ways.

The United States has the highest number of confirmed deaths from the pandemic: more than 1.1 million. By comparison, if official statistics are to be believed, just 5,235 Chinese have died of the disease. While China claims to have one of the lowest death rates in the world, the United States has one of the highest.

How did this calamity happen? There was plenty of blame to go around. In the pandemic’s early days, when little was known about it, government officials at all levels bungled the response. Former governor Andrew M. Cuomo (D), for example, required New York nursing homes to accept covid patients and then tried to cover up the resulting deaths.

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But the primary problem was the populist, anti-government, anti-science dogma of President Donald Trump and so many other Republican officials and voters. Flocking to the misguided banner of “medical freedom,” they were skeptical of the need for lockdowns to “flatten the curve” in the pandemic’s early days, contemptuous of the need to wear masks, and hostile to vaccine mandates — and indeed to vaccines themselves. Covid “denialism” and anti-vaxxer conspiracy theories infected the right-wing infosphere.

The Kaiser Family Foundation reports that, in September, 91 percent of Democrats were vaccinated compared to only 66 percent of Republicans. The deadly consequences of this partisan disparity were revealed in a research paper written by three Yale associate professors for the National Bureau of Economic Research. They found that death rates in Florida and Ohio among Democrats and Republicans were roughly equal before vaccines became widely available in the summer of 2021. At that point, the trend lines began to diverge. The death rate for Republicans ultimately was 76 percent higher than for Democrats.

Of the 10 states with the highest death rates, seven have Republican governors. Yet Republicans who are incensed by so many other public policy failures (e.g., undocumented immigration and urban crime) are strangely fatalistic about this deadly disaster. Gov. Ron DeSantis is a front-runner for the GOP presidential nomination even though Florida’s death rate from covid is nearly 60 percent higher than California’s.

The United States has paid a tragically high price for the hostility to science and government exhibited by so many of its citizens. Those woes have been exacerbated by the decentralization in our political system. Even though we elected a president in 2020 who understood the gravity of the crisis, the federal government doesn’t have the authority to impose vaccine mandates on red states.

China has suffered from the opposite problems — the heavy-handed authoritarianism of its government and the tendency of citizens to blindly obey authority. While Americans are too distrustful of their government, Chinese are too trusting of theirs — at least until recently. This catastrophe might shake that trust.

Xi staked his reputation on the “zero covid” policy and stuck with it long after it passed its sell-by date. There were no checks and balances to stop him. Now that Xi is finally loosening restrictions, China faces the danger of a large number of covid deaths among people with no natural immunity.

China’s government made at least three critical errors. First, it did not react promptly to the initial spread of the disease in Wuhan and indeed covered up the outbreak. Second, it failed to focus vaccination efforts on the elderly — the most vulnerable population. Only about 40 percent of those over 80 have received a booster shot. Third, it did not make use of the highly effective mRNA vaccines developed by Western firms like Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna. The nationalistic Chinese regime has only approved domestic vaccines that are reportedly less effective — putting national pride above public health.

Both China and the United States failed the coronavirus test. The countries that got it right were the ones that followed the science by first locking down and masking up, when there was no other way to stop the spread, and then vaccinating widely to allow a safe reopening.

Australia is an example: If the United States had the same death rate as Australia, about 900,000 lives would have been saved. Ah, you might object: Australia is an island. True, but Canada isn’t. It’s right next door to the United States and yet it has been much more successful in combating covid. If the U.S. death rate were the same as Canada’s, 418,000 lives would have been saved. Not surprisingly, both Canada and Australia also do far better than the United States in regulating guns and offering access to health care. While free countries, they are not in thrall to extreme libertarianism and populism.

One important lesson of the pandemic, then, is that extremist ideology — whether of the far right or far left — is a menace to public welfare, because it impedes a rational and empirical approach to dealing with major problems. There is no moral equivalence between China and America, but both are paying a price for ideological extremism.

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