πŸ”’ WORLDVIEW: China, US, Europe – which Covid-19 strategy will win

China, the US, and Europe have all been epicentres of the Covid-19 outbreak. Today, they are pursuing vastly different strategies for dealing with the new normal. Which one will prove the best?

China

Covid-19 originated in China and so it was the first country to launch a response to the pandemic. That response took the form of a draconian lockdown. Residents of the city of Wuhan became prisoners in their homes overnight, and domestic travel was entirely halted. The Wuhan lockdown lasted 76 days – a sign of just how seriously China took Covid-19.

Since then, China has been successful at containing its Covid-19 outbreaks. While people rightly question the accuracy of its case and death counts, it does seem clear that there are currently no uncontrolled outbreaks in China.
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However, this has come at a steep cost. The Chinese economy has taken a major beating and recovery will be slow. By all accounts, the reopening has been cautious and slow, and life is far from normal for China’s citizens. Temperature checks, masks, and physical distancing are strictly enforced. People must show – using a contact tracing app – that they have had no contact with anyone Covid-positive before they can travel. Under these circumstances, the economic recovery has been, and will be, slow.

Read also: As lockdown lifts, China shows the world what comes next

What’s more, a new outbreak in the city of Harbin indicates that China will continue to bring down the hammer on the coronavirus no matter the economic cost. In Harbin, around 50 cases sprang up after infected travellers entered the city from abroad. The response has been swift and harsh. Entire housing compounds with thousands of residents have been locked down over a single case, travel is restricted, and more measures may be implemented if cases rise further.

The bottom line is that China is clearly ready to squash any outbreaks no matter the economic cost. The Chinese government prioritises social stability above all else, and its response highlights this.

US

The US is currently the world leader in the absolute number of Covid-19 deaths in a single country – although adjusted for population, its outbreak is less severe than those in places like Belgium, Spain, Italy, and the UK (see table – keep in mind mortality reporting standards vary and numbers may not be perfectly accurate).

Country Covid-19 Deaths Population (millions) Covid-19 Deaths per Million
Belgium

8,339

11.42

730.08

Spain

25,857

46.72

553.4

Italy

29,684

60.43

491.2

United Kingdom

30,076

66.49

452.35

France

25,785

66.99

384.92

Netherlands

5,204

17.23

302.01

Sweden

2,941

10.18

288.81

Ireland

1,375

4.85

283.3

United States

73,321

327.17

224.11

Switzerland

1,805

8.52

211.94

Canada

4,366

37.06

117.81

Portugal

1,089

10.28

105.92

While the US overall is in reasonable shape, the New York region has been devastated, with 19,415 deaths. And, while the overall number of US cases seems to have generally plateaued, this seems to be a function of falling numbers in New York. Excluding the New York metro area, however, US cases continue to rise at a rate of around 2% a day. If we imagine the US as akin to the EU, then, it is as if infections are falling in some countries (states) but rising in others. This likely means the US death toll will continue to rise and new outbreaks are likely to emerge over time.

Despite this, the US has begun to roll back its lockdowns (even though polls show a majority in favour of keeping them in place for now). While China continues to prioritise containing the virus, the US is prioritising the economy. Around 30 million Americans have lost their jobs in the last two months, and thousands of businesses have closed down. Stimulus funds have helped keep some businesses and households afloat, but there is pressure to restart the economy, especially as it’s an election year and incumbent president Donald Trump has highlighted his record on the economy in his campaign.

The US, then, intends to accept a certain level of deaths (Trump has suggested around 100,000, a projection from the White House’s favoured model suggests around 135,000 by early August) as the cost of restarting normal life. At this point, it’s not clear how this will work out. Since most Americans want to keep lockdowns going, they may be slow to venture out to malls and restaurants as they reopen. In addition, many of the states eager to lift lockdowns, like Georgia, Texas, Kansas, Alabama, Mississippi, Iowa, and others, are currently experiencing rising case numbers. Reopening will likely lead to faster rises in these states, with unpredictable consequences. The hope is that the economic benefits of reopening outweigh these risks, but that is far from guaranteed.

Europe

Europe has so far seen the most Covid-19 deaths of any region. Italy, Spain, France, and the UK have been ravaged (Belgium has more liberal rules around reporting – it reports even suspected Covid-19 deaths or those where the disease may have been a factor in but not a cause of death, so it’s numbers are harder to compare).

Europe locked down country-by-country, starting with Italy, and sustained those lockdowns for months. Many countries now seem to have contained the virus. New Covid-19 cases have plateaued or fallen across most of Europe (but not all – the UK still seems to be seeing significant growth in cases).

With the virus contained, Europe is slowly emerging from lockdown. It seems, mostly, to be navigating a midway path between China and the US. It has not imposed the draconian checks on people that China has – there are no state-mandated contact tracing apps or temperature checks. But there is enormous caution. Businesses are operating under complex new restrictions. People can’t linger in restaurants, office workers are still at home, and masks are widely recommended or required.

Easing has been cautious and is permitted only where case numbers are falling. Authorities have said they will be re-imposed if there is a second wave. Europe, it seems, is not willing to allow another 100,000 deaths to save the economy but is also charting a less authoritarian path than China. The risk is that the middle way means containing neither the virus nor the economic consequences.

Who’s right?

The next few months will give us greater clarity on which path is best. Does it make sense to prioritise fighting Covid-19 no matter the cost, China-style, or is it better to let the virus spread and preserve the economy, US-style? Or is European-style balance the better bet? Only time can tell us.