A meme on my newsfeed this week depicted a man, which represented the media, rummaging through a haystack, which represented China’s lies, looking for a needle, or Western governments’ response. Later someone else on social media said people should criticize China more and America less for COVID-19. The frustration over China is understandable, but democracies need honest critiques and analysis. Americans’ right to criticize their government and public officials helps make the United States better than China.
Elsewhere in these pages others and I list some of China’s crimes that led to the COVID-19 pandemic, including the country silencing doctors who warned the world about a new virus. This week a report said Ai Fen, a whistleblowing doctor from Wuhan, vanished, sparking concerns about what the government did to her. Moreover, news this week revealed a US intelligence report concluded that China purposely underreported coronavirus cases and deaths, worsening the crisis and adding a massive asterisk to any chart or statistic listing China’s official numbers. The British government is reportedly so angry over this misrepresentation that Prime Minister Boris Johnson may cancel plans to allow the Chinese company Huawei to build the country’s 5G wireless network. The Chinese Communist Party faces a growing global backlash, from Americans and others.
But condemning China for its crimes does not prevent Americans from examining potential mistakes in the US. Federal, state, and local governments should learn from this event in case another epidemic occurs, which could happen given how easy global travel is.
The COVID-19 pandemic in the US is arguably worse now than it might have otherwise been, as some forecasts suggest. A group at Northwestern University consulting with the Centers for Disease Control modeled how the disease might spread under different scenarios. In mid-March Time released those models that most closely aligned with observed cases in the US. If the US had a high degree of surveillance and intervention, they estimated that by today, April 3, there would be around 20,200 individuals infected. If the US had a low degree, they estimated there would be 92,400. (Time did not release data for if there was no surveillance and intervention.) By April 30, they forecasted those numbers would be 160,000 and 1.4 million, respectively. Assuming an overall death rate of 1 percent, as Anthony Fauci suggested, these numbers would imply between 1,600 and 14,000 deaths after April 30. In reality, today there are 276,000 confirmed cases and over 7,400 deaths. Now the Trump administration estimates there could between 100,000 and 240,000 deaths, even with current social-distancing and lockdown measures.[i]
There are multiple explanations for why the Northwestern University modeling was wrong. For instance, pandemic modeling is hard; researchers are still learning about the disease; the virus could have been more widespread than researchers realized.[ii] Another explanation remains: the US could have responded more quickly, such as by enforcing shelter-in-place orders earlier, but didn’t. Looking at different incidents across the country, one can easily conclude that America will suffer many preventable deaths, perhaps tens of thousands, even if we can’t know the exact number.
New Orleans’ COVID-19 outbreak is a particular incident that deserves scrutiny. First, Mardi Gras on February 25 probably helped spread the virus in the city and region. Then authorities waited until mid-March to cancel other events where the virus could spread. On Friday, March 13, President Donald Trump issued a national emergency over the coronavirus, and the city canceled various official St. Patrick’s Day celebrations, including the Irish Channel St. Patrick’s Day Parade, scheduled for March 14. Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards also banned events with more than 250 people. Yet festivities continued. One tourist from Texas told a reporter, “We came up here for the parade, but they shut it down unfortunately. So we’re just drinking and having a good time.” Another reveler said, “I don’t want to put my life on hold for what-ifs.” Instead of a traditional parade, tourists and locals walked between bars along the same route and celebrated unofficially in the streets. They ignored signs asking them not to congregate in the street, and photos reveal crowded streets and bars. Police eventually dispersed the crowd, at least on one street, but they were too late. The following Monday, March 16, the state ordered bars and restaurants closed except for takeout.
Today Louisiana is a major COVID-19 epicenter with over 9,100 confirmed cases, up from roughly 80 on March 14. The city’s death rate is twice New York’s and four times Seattle’s, probably because people in the region have higher rates of obesity, hypertension, and diabetes. Other nearby Southern states with similar health statistics could suffer next. Mississippi, for example, has America’s highest COVID-19 hospitalization rate. Arguably, the region will now have longer lockdowns and a worse economic downturn than if the government responded sooner.
Americans have the right and probably a responsibility to question why the unofficial St. Patrick’s Day celebration happened in New Orleans, why Florida allowed students to use beaches during Spring Break, and why other incidents across the country occurred. In comparison, China’s crimes are worse, but someone’s crime doesn’t absolve others of their own mistakes. Other governments saw the same risks, responded differently, and saved lives. Why? Is the problem ineptitude, bad judgement, or something else? If Americans submissively accept government officials’ explanations and don’t honestly question, criticize, or investigate, the country won’t learn important lessons in case another epidemic occurs.
Part of the honest criticism should also consider the economic stimulus designed to help Americans survive lockdown measures. Such criticism has already produced fruit. For instance, the Internal Revenue Service initially said social security recipients would need to file extra paperwork to receive stimulus checks. But the government received criticism and reversed its policy the next day. Other problems, such as the process’ slowness, remain but will hopefully be addressed. I’ve long been a fan of Germany’s Kurzarbeit system, which could help with this problem in a future crisis. Instead of laying off workers, businesses receive government help to pay workers who stay home temporarily until they can return to work. Now is too late to improve similar programs in the US, but maybe the states and federal government will hear critiques and respond.
The debate over how Americans can criticize their government when other countries are worse is not new. In Christianity and Crisis in February 1945, Reinhold Niebuhr responded to a subscriber who was upset the publication criticized American diplomatic and military policies while the country fought Nazi Germany. In response, Niebuhr begins, “We have of course never believed that the effort of the nation, and the total cause in which our nation is involved, should be given uncritical loyalty.” He goes on to explain that even as imperfect people overcome the worst kinds of injustice, “it is equally important to recognize how easily an uncritical attitude toward our own cause may lead to a growth of those very qualities which one condemns in the enemy.” During World War II Americans risked pridefully thinking that Nazi Germans embodied all evil and that their destruction would fully redeem the world. “It is by this very pride that we accentuate the evil in ourselves, which we have in common with the enemy.” Niebuhr says Americans risked thinking they were more virtuous than they were and failing to see their own sins. So criticizing America for its faults, even while fighting Nazi Germany, prevented evil multiplying “anew behind the facade of a pretended virtue.” He concludes, “It is a question whether nations as such ever have a sense of guilt or ever feel themselves under a divine judgment. But it is quite clear what the testimony of a Christian leaven in the nation ought to be.”
Niebuhr’s editorial from
75 years ago offers some guidance today. American Christians should be willing to
condemn China’s great crimes while also criticizing America’s mistakes. Healthy
criticism of our government and leaders (not the partisan, political point-scoring,
though that’s inevitable) not only prods politicians toward better policies,
but also makes us aware of our own sins, reduces our pride, and prevents evil
multiplying behind a façade of pretended virtue. Americans’ right to criticize
the government is a key reason why the US is better than China and why
democracies ultimately outperform autocracies.
[i] Considering other data produces another grim picture about preventable American deaths. If the United States, which had its first confirmed case on January 20, lost the same share of its population to COVID-19 as South Korea, which had its first confirmed case on the same day, there would be around 1,100 deaths the morning of April 3. Looking at Taiwan, which had its first case on January 21, that number would be roughly 70. Looking at Canada, which had its first case on January 27, that number would be roughly 1,300, though deaths there increased significantly today. These numbers can change over time, but more Americans appear to be dying today than if the country had responded to the pandemic differently. At least America is doing better than other countries. Using the same analysis for Sweden, which had its first confirmed case on February 4, the US would have about 11,350 deaths.
[ii] The explanation that China’s misrepresentation of the disease prevented the US from responding properly until mid-March, while plausible, is largely unconvincing. First, other countries responded more adeptly, suggesting the US could have done better. Second, some in the US government seem to have known the pandemic would be awful. After receiving an intelligence briefing about COVID-19 on January 24, multiple senators dumped stocks, suggesting they knew the pandemic’s severity. The public may not fully understand for years who knew what when or what the US could have done differently, but something smells rotten.