The American media has indefatigably promoted the line that the PRC’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak has discredited the “Chinese model of governance” which is to say authoritarian rule implemented by party/state bureaucrats.
Now that the coronavirus is scratching at America’s door, the United States’ own capacity for handling a disaster like coronavirus has evolved from unexamined self-congratulatory propaganda to reality-based anxiety and borderline panic.
So, instead of looking at the platonic ideal of democratic transparency and responsible governance, let’s look at how the US system of governance actually responds to a real disaster in the real world.
To evaluate the Chinese response to coronavirus, it would be tempting to look at how the hard-striving up and coming wannabe super power of the early twentieth century, the United States, handled, mishandled, covered up and exacerbated the Spanish Influenza epidemic of 1918 with a combination of lies, denial, and junk science.
But comparing an early 20th century pandemic to a modern response isn’t really fair? Is it?
I’ll leave the 1918 epidemic in the rear view mirror with only one observation in light of the campaign by enemies of the PRC, including the Taiwan government, to humiliate China by persisting in the “Wuhan coronavirus” identifier for what is now officially Covid-2019.
The so-called Spanish influenza epidemic of 1918 was actually the U.S. influenza epidemic of 1918 or, if you will, the Kansas influenza epidemic of 1918. The disease was spawned around the Camp Funston army base in Haskell County, Kansas and carried overseas by US soldiers in World War I, whereupon it ravaged Europe and first attracted the attention of the Anglophone press with an outbreak in Spain. It then returned home to the United States, where it killed an estimated 670,000 people on top of 50 to 100 million people worldwide.
Actually, make that two observations.
Here’s an anecdote from John Barry, a leading historian of the 1918 epidemic. He wrote:
I recall participating in a pandemic “war game” in Los Angeles… I gave a talk about what happened in 1918, how society broke down, and emphasized that to retain the public’s trust, authorities had to be candid. “You don’t manage the truth,” I said. “You tell the truth.” Everyone shook their heads in agreement.
Next, the people running the game revealed the day’s challenge to the participants: A severe pandemic influenza virus was spreading around the world. It had not officially reached California, but a suspected case—the severity of the symptoms made it seem so—had just surfaced in Los Angeles. The news media had learned of it and were demanding a press conference.
The participant with the first move was a top-ranking public health official. …He declined to hold a press conference, and instead just released a statement: More tests are required. The patient might not have pandemic influenza. There is no reason for concern.
I was stunned. … Instead of taking the lead in providing credible information he instantly fell behind the pace of events. He would find it almost impossible to get ahead of them again. He had, in short, shirked his duty to the public, risking countless lives.
And that was only a game.
Now, consider this tweet from a public health specialist with Ebola experience commenting on twitter:
In multiple Northern CA hospitals I work there is hesitance [to] test because it will set off alarm/panic & results will take days - no one wants to trigger that only to have [negative] result later
So China isn’t the only place that flinches when looking down the barrel of a potential pandemic.
The spirit of the 1918 influenza epidemic lives on in US disaster response and, I think, in the hearts of any public health official, be they communist or capitalist or socialist, trying to decide if they want to light the fuse on a national panic and a multi-billion dollar anti-pandemic response.
That’s why I chose to assigned China a passing grade, B, in evaluating its response to the coronavirus outbreak.
But there’s another factor to consider: the magnitude and unfamiliarity of the crisis.
The original hot take was that China botched a simple public health challenge: monitoring people with flu symptoms to stay ahead of an outbreak. Well, the hot take needed some adjustment because, you know, it was a new coronavirus, not a strain of flu, and its existence had to be teased out from the noise of the pneumonia and flu data. Then the hot hot take was that China had botched the crisis by failing to act promptly in recognizing the node of the outbreak and shutting down the Huanan Seafood wet market, the pangolin-dealing forbidden zone that supposedly spawned the virus.
Well, now it looks like the coronavirus was burbling along in Wuhan for several months hiding among other ailments; it’s highly communicable; it has a long incubation period which allows infectees a lot of opportunity to stray across populations and territories before detection; and it looks like transmission by asymptomatic infectees also occurs. A report from Hong Kong implies you might even get it from your dog. Even after a month of exhaustive scientific and media attention, key characteristics of the virus remain undetermined.
When the coronavirus outbreak took unmistakable shape it required a massive national response which the Chinese government, after some dithering, decided to deliver.
This makes coronavirus in China look like a special kind of crisis, an unexpected worst case manifestation of a previously unknown virus.
The way coronavirus outbreaks are getting handled and mishandled in diverse jurisdictions like Japan, South Korea, Iran, and Italy despite weeks of advance warning and scientific inquiry support the perception that this is a uniquely nasty piece of business.
This perception is also supported by a look back at how the government, public, and media responded to another unexpected crisis: the flooding of New Orleans post-Katrina in 2005.
When I set out to do a compare and contrast on Katrina and coronavirus, I expected a relatively simple narrative of screwed up federal response to Katrina—you know, the Superdome, the unused schoolbuses, the million dollars worth of ice shipped around the country and abandoned, the FEMA trailers, the “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” thing—with the relatively straightforward and straightforwardly brutal injection of massive national government power into the Wuhan coronavirus crisis.
Well, the truth is, as usual, more complicated and more interesting.
A recent book, Managing Hurricane Katrina: Lessons from a Megadisaster, makes the point that the flooding of New Orleans was not just a disaster, it was a mega disaster. In other words, the local, state, and federal government had a pretty robust regime for responding to a disastrous hurricane, which performed reasonably well in determining needs and capabilities, evacuating the city, in coordinating and delivering disaster relief assistance to New Orleans—up to a point.
For instance, the Superdome was notoriously understocked with food, medical facilities, and sanitary equipment not because disaster planning was run by idiots but because the Dome was expected to be pretty much an overnight hideyhole for people who couldn’t or wouldn’t evacuate but were expected to return to their homes promptly after the hurricane moved on.
The city’s attitude toward the Superdome as a shelter of last resort that it wanted cleared out as soon as possible after the hurricane moved on was perhaps colored by disdain for the poor, largely African American citizens it expected to take refuge there. "It's not a hotel" as one official put it. Before the storm the National Guard dropped off enough Meals Ready to Eat for 15,000 for 3 days and that was it.
But the flooding of New Orleans after the levees breached and put 80% of the city under water kept 50,000 people marooned in the Superdome and Convention Center for an agonizing week with nowhere else to go, little food, no power, no sanitation, little medical care, stifling heat, and flood waters burbling up to cover the playing field.
The flooding was a megadisaster that not only overwhelmed the city of New Orleans but also the state of Lousiana. FEMA, the federal organization designed to step up when cities and states were overwhelmed, was itself overwhelmed.
FEMA, which was designed to respond to state and city government requests for additional assistance, not run a local relief operation itself, had almost nobody on the ground in New Orleans. When local communications collapsed, the federal government lacked what it deemed reliable intelligence and it was loath to act based on incomplete information. Amazingly, it took three days for Department of Homeland Security to accept reports that the levees had indeed breached and not just overtopped.
The megadisaster contingency had never been effectively worked out. The result was widespread cognitive collapse and furious tussling between FEMA, the department of homeland security, the White House, the state of Louisiana, and the city of New Orleans over a desperate ad hoc proposal to “federalize” the disaster operation—in other words, put it in the hands of the military as if it were a terrorist attack, with everybody taking orders from the Pentagon.
The lack of a prepositioned mechanism to handle the megadisaster caused an epidemic of blameshifting as the various players struggled to formulate a response and cover their behinds while under a blinding and critical media spotlight. New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin led the charge against Washington, Department of Homeland Security chief Chertoff dumped on FEMA and Michael Brown, and the White House allegedly decided that Louisiana governor Kathleen Blanco should serve as the fall gal.
With this context of dysfunction and admitted incapacity, the media seized on the narrative of “anarchy in New Orleans” instead of “valor under impossible conditions”, a state of affairs which observers of Western coverage of the PRC’s struggle with coronavirus will find quite familiar.
The authors of “Managing Hurricane Katrina” make a couple of points. First, the media coverage was ghastly and keyed off rumor and sensationalism often irresponsibly peddled by local officials. Second, the media coverage had real life consequences. As they put it, “Katrina created a dangerous feedback loop that the key players did not recognize…”
The authors quote from a House of Representatives report: “The hyped media coverage of violence and lawlessness, legitimized by New Orleans authorities, served to delay relief efforts by scaring away truck and bus drivers, increasing the anxiety of those in shelters, and generally increasing the resources the needed to be devoted to security.”
Bus drivers delivered their vehicles and keys to staging areas in New Orleans, but refused to drive in because of the horror stories they had heard about violence inside New Orleans.
When the buses were finally available to evacuate the convention center, the military waited until it could send in 1000 heavily armed National Guardsmen prepared to conduct an armed assault to retake the facility. Instead of an insurrection, they found thousands of desperate and bewildered people wondering why they were being treated like prisoners of war…and why the evacuation had taken so long.
Politician and media-stoked fears of rioters also contributed to the infamous blockade of the Crescent River Bridge across the Mississippi by police from the little town of Gretna in order to prevent people from New Orleans walking across for refuge.
While the media beguiled itself with largely fabricated visions of the black underclass running amok in the Superdome, raping babies and throwing people off the balconies, the greatest horror of the crisis was not revealed until a year later: how some *ahem* white middle class members of the medical staff of Memorial Hospital allegedly lost their moral compass and euthanized several dozen severely ill patients so they could evacuate instead of staying behind to comfort the victims in their hours of need and wait for help.
I would say that Katrina and coronavirus offer useful parallels in analyzing the crises not as mismanaged disasters but as megadisasters, unprecedented events addressed with ad hoc responses and a good amount of flailing when no firm plan for management existed and until exceptional resources could be mobilized.
In both New Orleans and Wuhan, the initial period of desperate grappling with the crisis sparked a blame game between local and national officials that seeped into the media and ended in centralization: the US federalizing the Katrina response and the CCP literally putting China on a national war footing.
In both cases, the struggles in organizing a response led to conspicuous loss of life and an exacerbation of suffering and to the central government losing control of the narrative and eliciting over-the-top responses in order to regain control.
The United States pumped thousands of heavily armed troops and agents into New Orleans to counter the narrative that America was surrendering the city to anarchy.
The PRC deluged Wuhan with makeshift hospitals, medical workers, and military personnel to demonstrate its commitment to conquering the epidemic.
This distorted the response in New Orleans; how much the PRC actions in Wuhan skew the overall battle against coronavirus remains to be seen.
A similar struggle to gain control both over the outbreak and the narrative appears to be playing out in the United States as a coronavirus cases continue to pop up and the U.S. handling of the outbreak encounters some early difficulties.
The CDC stumbled out of the gate when its diagnostic kits for coronavirus turned out to be defective and had to be held back from local health departments.
Just as Wuhan tried to keep a lid on things with limited reporting as it tried to get its arms around the elusive transmission characteristics of the virus, the CDC tried to keep a lid on things by establishing strict guidelines for testing to provide local hospitals and health departments criteria and pretexts to refuse to test people who certainly looked like they might have coronavirus.
As it is, the delay in testing may very well be a factor in the CDC’s grim prediction that Covid-2019 is going to become a community virus that’s around to stay.
The ad hoc response to an inability to definitively identify and track infectees backward and forward in time: hospitals sent people who might have had coronavirus home to self-quarantine well kinda self quarantine and maybe infecting their family, friends, and neighbors, which is exactly what helped fuel the disaster in Wuhan.
With the coronavirus response not going great and given the serious political divisions in the United States, it hasn’t taken long for our emerging coronavirus response to get politicized with perhaps fatal consequences for the US capacity to respond to the epidemic.
Democrats attacked Trump for slashing pandemic preparedness funding, and for appointing the religiously inclined and science averse Vice President Mike Pence as his coronavirus czar.
Republicans turned around and attacked the PRC for letting the coronavirus cat out of the bag, despite the two month warning the U.S. had received, and aimed fire at the WHO as China’s lackey.
And the media, both prestige media and social media, that is, is at hand to pour gasoline on the fire.
This carnival of dysfunction has consequences.
Today, America is not in a state of shared resolve and social and political unity needed to support the logical solution to the outbreak: a massive and expensive infringement of civil liberties that would be necessary to stamp out the virus with compulsory quarantines of infectees and asymptomatic contacts, and extensive lockdowns, you know, like they do in China.
If that’s off the table, it means we’re entering a world of unpleasant contingencies and difficult choices beyond the simple public health goal of eradication of a lethal pathogen.
What I predict: when faced by the huge social, political, economic, and legal barriers to instituting a full coronavirus eradication regime, the U.S. will opt for Plan B.
That means, instead of defeating coronavirus America will find a way to live with Covid-2019 or, to put it another way, not care about it too much.
That’s because Covid-2019 mainly kills old people. There’s a melancholy statistic in epidemiology called “YLL” or “Years of Life Lost”, which measures the impact of an epidemic in terms of how many years of additional life it strips from a population. In the YLL equation, a young life, with decades of productive labor ahead of it, is worth more than an old life.
Put that way, the cost of shielding an old life with a costly expenditure of resources seems, well, excessive. Especially if you’re a Chicago School economist who jumps at the chance to put a dollar value on human life. By this metric, we’re way smarter than the communists because we’re not going to sacrifice tens or even hundreds of billions of dollars in direct costs and indirect GDP losses to save a few hundred thousand pensioners.
I’ve already seen a recommendation to be “cost efficient” in “mitigating” the outbreak instead of trying to eliminate the coronavirus. Thin the herd! That’s the ticket.
In other words, tolerate a death rate of 10% or so among senior citizen infectees as long as they die quietly instead of dropping dead in the street or in the hallway of a mobbed hospital emergency room.
Then mass produce the vaccine, turn Covid-2019 deaths into archived mortality statistics, and come up with a final body count in a medical journal a few years after the bodies have been buried and the families have moved on.
After all, a postmortem 4 years after the swine flu or H1N1 pandemic of 2009 calculated that global deaths numbered 200,000—that’s ten times the original estimate.
So, I predict that America will survive Covid-2019, not because of a superior system of government but because of superior callousness. We’ll simply be extra creative in thinking up ways not to care. We’re good at that.
As an end note, Wuhan and New Orleans’ ordeal do differ in one important respect. Wuhan’s disaster grew out of bugs and bats and whatever lurks in biology’s darkest places; New Orleans’ problems were entirely man-made. Make that US-government made.
Note, as America’s insurance companies did, New Orleans was not leveled by Hurricane Katrina. Hurricane Katrina did not hit New Orleans directly; the main damage from high winds occurred eastward along the Gulf Coast towards Biloxi. When catastrophe occurred, Katrina and its winds were already pretty much gone.
New Orleans was flooded when its levees failed owing to a series of engineering errors, many of which can be laid at the feet of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is in charge of flood control on the Mississippi down New Orleans way.
The worst example of human error was the collapse of the levee containing the 17th Street Canal. The Army Corps of Engineers goofed in calculating the project requirements, and sunk the sheetpile—that’s the wall that’s supposed to form the core of the levee that holds the waters in—17 feet instead of 31 to 46 feet deep. When the storm waters rushed into the canal, they pushed aside the levee wall like a giant hand—while the flood waters were still five feet below the maximum design height.
That was only one of many breaches.
The worst loss of life was as a result of multiple breaches of the Industrial Canal, which was fatally connected to the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet or MRGO waterway. The MRGO was a classic engineering botch executed by the Army Corps of Engineers that was intended to provide New Orleans with a profitable shortcut to the Gulf of Mexico, one that avoided the twists and turns of the Mississippi. Instead, it was underutilized, inadequately reinforced, and improperly maintained.
As the MRGO deteriorated and widened to five times its design width it became a “shotgun pointed at the heart of New Orleans” as a study warned pre-Katrina: a lethal superhighway for Katrina’s storm surge to funnel into the Industrial Canal at such a high rate of flow that the canal’s earthen levees were chewed to pieces. Breaches occurred up and down the length of the canal, inundating the Ninth Ward and accounting for most of the fatalities.
After the flood, New Orleans sued the Army Corps of Engineers for $77 billion dollars. A federal court found that the Army Corps of Engineers was indeed responsible but, thanks to the immunity of the U.S. government to lawsuits for botched flood control projects, it was off the hook.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which had built the MRGO, never admitted it caused the disaster; but after Katrina it immediately blocked the MRGO channel and for good measure built a $1 billion dollar surge barrier on a crash program in case another hurricane got the idea of reexcavating the channel and charging into New Orleans.
Government culpability for the disaster was dodged at the cost of a few billion dollars for levees.
Dodged, though not permanently.
As a report in Scientific American put it, After a $14-Billion Upgrade, New Orleans’ Levees Are Sinking
Sea level rise and ground subsidence will render the flood barriers inadequate in just four years.
That article was written in 2019, 11 months after the Army Corps of Engineers completed the work.