Sunday, March 8, 2020


Medical scientists are learning a great deal from the COVID-19 epidemic, and there are lessons for all of us. Perhaps the most compelling is the lesson that the best responses to any major health crisis cannot come from totalitarian governments.

China, which was ground zero for the coronavirus, has forcibly quarantined tens of millions of its people, lied about the disease’s spread and suffered the highest numbers of deaths. Its scientists are doing research, but there is no news about what they have done or what successes they may have achieved. The Xi Jinping regime will hide the news until there are major successes, if such ever occur. 

The nation which has suffered the next most deaths, Iran, has similarly lied about the epidemic there. Its health system, to the extent it exists, is incapable of a significant response. 

The coronavirus has spread to about 70 nations in Europe, the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa. India expects a major outbreak. The disease can kill, but most people suffer no more than they would from a normal case of flu.

The only good thing about the coronavirus outbreak is the relative stability of the virus. Neither of its two identified strains apparently have (yet) mutated into a deadlier disease.

Democracies are better than despotisms at fighting disease, as my friend John Batchelor and I discussed on his radio show. Contrast the ways China and Iran are dealing with the coronavirus with the methods and means being employed by the United States and Israel.

China is Communist, and, derivatively, totalitarian. When the outbreak of the coronavirus began in the city of Wuhan, the first thing China did was to bury the news. For about six weeks, the Chinese government concealed the problem.

Since then, China has managed to do little to fight the deadly disease except for quarantining whole cities to stop its spread. People were — and are — forbidden to leave their homes except for one designated family member who is allowed out a couple of times a week to buy food. The lockdowns have expanded with the Chinese seeking to protect Beijing.

News has been censored by the Chinese government — reporters arrested for trying to report on the Xi Jinping regime’s failures — and there are reports of a force like Mao’s “Red Guards” being sent out to beat people who protest against the government’s handling of the crisis. 

Mao’s “Red Guards” were an irregular army of high school and college students mobilized in 1966 to fight “counterrevolutionaries” — i.e., reformers — who threatened Mao’s power. They conducted a reign of terror that killed hundreds of thousands. 

China’s economy has flatlined. In February, production in Chinese factories was the lowest on record. As a result, Mr. Xi’s government has ordered everyone to go back to work around March 16. It’s entirely unclear how effective that order will be. 

Iran — which has had more deaths due to the coronavirus than any nation other than China — is both less able to deal with the disease than even China and is lying about the number of deaths and infections. 

Like China, Iran’s response to its coronavirus has been to prevent publication of news about it and take pointless actions such as sending drones to spray streets with disinfectant. The National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), which has been a reliable source of news from Iran, reported that more than a thousand Iranians have died of the coronavirus so far and that cases of infections number about 20 times those reported by the regime. 

Iran’s health care system, to the extent it has one, is totally overwhelmed. Last week, Iran’s government said it had deployed 300,000 “health care workers” to fight the disease.

None of Iran’s actions have helped slow the spread of the disease. China has reportedly slowed the spread of the disease through quarantines, but that news is government-created.

In contrast, Israel, which is not yet suffering a large outbreak of the disease, has announced that it will have a vaccine developed in a matter of weeks. Israeli scientists, like ours, are not burdened by government control of their research and news blackouts. 

Scientists in Israel and the United States reportedly have the ability to “print” viruses. Some were being researched to attack cancer cells. They may also be able to “print” the coronavirus using massive computer power, 3-dimensional printers and some sort of organic material. By that means, it may be possible to develop a vaccine in far less time than by normal means.

President Trump has put Vice President Mike Pence in charge of a multi-agency task force that promises openness and a “whole of government” response to the disease. Mr. Pence announced that tests for coronavirus infection are already available for all Americans. He is working with pharmaceutical companies to speed development of a coronavirus vaccine.

Some people returning from China — and from an infected cruise ship — have been quarantined here. Other measures should be imposed to restrict travel to nations where the disease has spread widely and quarantine people coming from them. 

It is far too soon to predict whether our government’s response to the coronavirus will prevent a deadly epidemic in the United States. It’s a pretty safe bet that it will do far better than the despotisms of China and Iran.

• Jed Babbin, a deputy undersecretary of Defense in the George H.W. Bush administration, is the author of “In the Words of Our Enemies.”

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