Home >News >World >What WHO Won’t Learn From China

After much wrangling to gain entry a World Health Organization visit to China is not going to solve the mystery of Covid-19’s origins.

Its mission will consist of interviewing Chinese medical and research personnel to see if they tell stories at odds with Beijing’s official version. They won’t. An obvious reason for the long delay and politicking over WHO’s invitation was to make sure word was dispatched down the bureaucracy to let local officials and medics know what they were supposed to say.

The real challenge now, which I doubt will enlist much Chinese cooperation, is to ransack China’s inventory of patient and autopsy samples from before the Wuhan outbreak to find out where and when the new virus manifested itself without being recognized.

Other countries have been willing to do this outside of China. We know the virus was present in France in December 2019 before the Wuhan eruption. A woman with a characteristic Covid rash who turned up at a Milan hospital in November 2019 has been identified as Italy’s possible Patient Zero; some blood samples suggest the virus may have been present since September 2019.

In comments to the press, WHO officials have alluded to the assumption that China has collected such samples too and hasn’t made the results public. Don’t hold your breath. Chinese officials now delight in suggesting, based on such evidence, that the virus started elsewhere. China gets credit for alerting the world to its existence. Guess what? Anything is possible until we establish some pattern in unrecognized early cases.

What’s happening in China today might be a more fruitful subject of WHO inquiry than what happened in Wuhan a year ago. In Hebei province this week, 22 million people have been commanded not to leave their homes, in response to what’s described as a “handful" of cases. Such instances have repeatedly popped up across China with little analysis leaking into the outside world. A lockdown in the city of Kashgar was imposed after a single asymptomatic case led to 137 others, all asymptomatic. Is this a medical miracle or have China’s citizens gotten the message that they should hide their sore throats and fevers from authorities?

No Western society would stand for the costs China has asked its citizens to bear: enforced mass testing, enforced quarantining, the locking of symptomless or uninfected people in their homes.

China is not Taiwan, Singapore or even South Korea, a country with water on three sides and an impassible military border on the fourth.

Before the pandemic hit, China was the world’s No. 4 international tourist destination with 60 million visitors a year. Business travelers kept investment and trade flowing. Losing these benefits is among the costs China’s people have been forced to bear. What’s harder to understand is that they did so to avoid costs Western countries didn’t have to worry about.

By a count published in January 2020, China has 3.6 intensive-care beds for every 100,000 citizens—compared with 29.4 for the U.S. and 38.7 for Germany.

China has nine cities bigger than New York, 27 bigger than Los Angeles, and 40 bigger than Chicago. Now think of the virus raging through these cities the way it did New York in the spring or L.A. today, with one-tenth the hospital capacity. In case you’re wondering, the median age in China is roughly the same as the U.S.

Wuhan, a city of 11 million, is 30% bigger than New York yet its hospital system broke down under a case and death load that, by official statistics, was less than a quarter of that experienced by New York several weeks later. In Wuhan, patients died not only in the hallways but in the streets.

Covid has been a rough experience for everybody. In threatening to land on China’s large urban agglomerations, though, it might well have looked like the end of the road for the Communist Party.

I was happy to see a New York Times piece the other day that, instead of touting the superiority of its officials, acknowledged that Taiwan benefited from being an island that could shut off travel.

The U.S. has 328 ports of international entry. Even with tourism down 68%, even with the Mexican and Canadian borders closed to “nonessential" travel, more than 100,000 people cross our borders every day (not including illegal border crossers).

China may not be a model for any country that isn’t China. We can still be grateful for its example. While others have accepted epidemics and focused on treating patients, its economy has helped the world stay upright. Its agricultural and industrial imports have surged. Its factories have been churning out, as the Journal put it, “medical equipment and work-from-home gear" in vast quantities to help other countries manage their own adaptations to Covid’s arrival in the world.

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