As we settle down to the inevitable spread — but relatively minor impact — of the coronavirus, it is worth thinking about the causes of the disease’s spread and whether any of them are likely to change.
Will Beijing clamp down on wet markets, where live wildlife is killed there and sold to consumers? Part of the reason these markets are popular is that the Chinese consumer is so distrustful of Chinese government-run entities (not just limited to the many state-run businesses), that they do not trust they are getting what they demand unless they see it with their own eyes. This concern is widespread across China. I’ve encountered it with medicines, pet foods, and milk. I recall speaking to Chinese mothers who refused to buy Chinese milk formula because they were so worried about Chinese manufacturing and knew (not just suspected) that Beijing didn’t care about oversight.
The only way to improve matters is for Beijing to actually regulate its businesses properly, not just turn a blind eye to politically-favored companies, or execute anyone out of favor in grand style to demonstrate they’re serious about matters. This isn’t likely to happen soon. Even if the public wet markets are closed, I doubt the practice of paying to see your food killed will go away until distrust is removed.
What chance is there that the media will improve in China? And by this I mean: Will media be able to report more widely and do the job western media does? China has improved markedly in this regard in the past decade, so there is some hope here. But the institutional power systems mean that if regional and local leaders fear blowback from Beijing far more than media exposure, then the kinds of early stage cover-ups we’ve seen with coronavirus are likely to continue.
China hawks and protectionists are already using the coronavirus as a way to pull back from business engagement with the country. The problem is that when “the big one” happens — when a highly infectious disease with a fairly long (over two weeks) incubation period and high mortality rate occurs, most likely emanating from China — a pullback of engagement won’t really protect us. We should instead be encouraging China to change. Only then will a future pandemic be merely painful, rather than disastrous.
This article by Roger Bate first appeared at AEI.