China’s flawed reaction to the coronavirus

China’s flawed reaction to the coronavirus, by Henry Ergas.

When the great cholera epidemics of the 19th century began in 1820, no one had any idea what had struck. Here was a disease of astonishing ferocity, as terrifying as the plague and seemingly as unstoppable, that was rapidly making its way from the Far East towards Europe. …

In September 1830, as the epidemic approached Moscow, the roads and bridges leading into the city were destroyed and all those suspected of breaching containment lines were executed on the spot.

A few months later, in Tambov, the Russian police seized anyone thought to be harbouring the disease, beating the recalcitrant senseless.

Prussia’s response was more systematic but no less severe. An immense military cordon was drawn along its eastern borders, enforced by 60,000 troops empowered to shoot on sight.

In areas that were infected, or at high risk of infection, a general quarantine was imposed, with no one allowed to leave home except by permission. All places of public assembly were shut and domestic animals were killed.

Britain’s less autocratic approach was successful and ultimately much cheaper:

With a free press — which ­became even freer as taxes preventing the publication of cheap newspapers were repealed — local authorities had less scope ­either to bumble or to abuse their power, as they so frequently did on the continent.

At the same time, commercial interests campaigned vigorously against measures they considered needlessly draconian. …

the unrestricted ability to collect data about the disease’s incidence encouraged attempts to analyse the conditions which contributed to its spread.

All that facilitated serious investigation of what could be done not merely to immediately control the spread of cholera but also to reduce its longer-term threat.

Placed in charge of the Board of Health, the great Victorian “sanitationists” Edwin Chadwick, Southwood Smith and John Simon ultimately managed to secure parliament’s support for measures that sought to provide potable water, ensure effective removal of human and animal waste, and prohibit the sale of adulterated or contaminated food throughout the nation’s burgeoning cities.

The sanitationists’ program was as costly and intrusive on ­ordinary people’s lives as it was vastly ambitious — indeed, it was more disruptive than any of the policies undertaken by the continent’s autocracies.

But Britain’s parliament had the public legitimacy to carry out initiatives on that scale, all the more so as a vigilant press helped protect basic freedoms and minimise corruption and inefficiency in the program’s implementation. …

By the last third of the 19th century, when steamships and the opening of the Suez Canal meant that diseases now travelled at unprecedented speed, those initiatives allowed Britain to lead the world in adopting dramatically streamlined controls, reducing the damage an unchecked proliferation of quarantine measures would have done to its dominance of world trade.