China’s rapid growth shows why virus controls must trump reopening economy

Zhou Xin, South Chine Morning Post

Posted at Oct 19 2020 10:36 PM

People wearing masks following the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak are seen on a street during morning rush hour in Beijing. Tingshu Wang, Reuters

China’s economic growth acceleration in the third quarter confirmed a strong recovery in the world’s second-biggest economy when many other countries are still struggling to balance growth and coronavirus control.

The 4.9 per cent gross domestic product growth rate is expected to feed a narrative that China’s way of handling the coronavirus has been effective, and that the country’s governance system is better suited to cope with crises such as Covid-19, especially compared with the United States, Europe and India.

But propaganda aside, there is a lesson that the rest of the world can learn from China’s experience in combating the coronavirus: governments need to take the coronavirus seriously, the efforts to contain it should be taken quickly and short-term pain must be accepted to regain sustained economic growth.

In China’s case, after a slow response to the initial outbreak in Wuhan, which involved censorship and suspected attempts at a cover-up, the central government took decisive action in late January by locking down Wuhan and putting the population in Hubei province under a kind of house arrest.

The whole country shifted into emergency mode during the Lunar New Year holiday and the weeks that followed – a level of social control that had been unheard of even by China’s standards. Looking back, one must admit that it was not an easy decision for Beijing to make.

There was no way for Beijing to be absolutely sure at the time that this approach would work, and the cost of the draconian social controls was obvious and immediate. China’s economy shrank by 6.8 per cent in the first quarter of 2020, and about 200 million Chinese workers were out of jobs – a horrendous result for a government obsessed with social stability.

There were also moments in recent months when doubts emerged about China’s approach after new outbreaks in Beijing, Urumqi and, most recently, in Qingdao.

But in general, the approach has worked. China’s measures – including lockdowns to cut transmission chains, the centralised hospitalisation of patients, and strict quarantines of close contacts and inbound passengers – proved effective in keeping the coronavirus under control.

In contrast, half measures, prompted by premature decisions to reopen societies and economies, have led to new rounds of infections and social controls, which could do more long-term damage to economies than a brief period of pain.

What accountability China should bear for the spread of this coronavirus is a debatable issue. But one thing that China has clearly shown the world is that coronavirus control is the horse, and the economy is the cart, in the proper order.