Authoritarianism has made this outbreak worse, not better. The state’s strength in controlling information and suppressing dissent is a weakness in fighting disease.
Nature is unpredictable and sometimes vengeful. Different societies and political systems have different ways of managing it.
Viruses and epidemics can occur in any country. But they have become more dangerous and challenging in modern times as globalisation means they spread faster and farther than ever.
Thus the coronavirus, thought to have originated in the mainland Chinese city of Wuhan, is spreading across the world.
As it does so, it tests not only China’s health infrastructure and management. The course of the epidemic and the government’s responses raise profound questions about the capacity and dynamism of China’s system of one-party rule.
For sure, China’s leadership is now doing everything to contain the virus, just as they had done in fights against natural disasters such as the Sichuan Earthquake in 2008. In fact, China’s command-and-control systems might prove more efficient than anything the free democracies could manage when it comes to mobilising resources.
Beijing won international plaudits for the massive scale of its mobilisation and dramatic measures against the coronavirus. The government has built several temporary hospitals from scratch in just a few weeks, locked down tens of millions of people in quarantine in more than two dozen cities, banned tens of millions more from travelling across the nation and so on.
But the saga has also, once again, exposed the inherent contradictions and flaws in its self-acclaimed political system.
China missed the best opportunity to contain the spread of the virus because officials at first delayed – or possibly covered up – the release of information and were slow in taking precautionary actions. The first patient who experienced symptoms was found on December 1, 2019, suggesting the origin of the disease was even earlier. And there has been some evidence of human-to-human transmissions since late December, with more emerging in early January when several medical workers were infected.