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Blaming China Is a Dangerous Distraction

Nobody denies that Chinese officials' initial effort to cover up the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan at the turn of the year was an appallingly misguided decision. But anyone who is still focusing on China's failings instead of working toward a solution is essentially making the same mistake.

LONDON – As the COVID-19 crisis roars on, so have debates about China’s role in it. Based on what is known, it is clear that some Chinese officials made a major error in late December and early January, when they tried to prevent disclosures of the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan, even silencing health-care workers who tried to sound the alarm. China’s leaders will have to live with these mistakes, even if they succeed in resolving the crisis and adopting adequate measures to prevent a future outbreak.

What is less clear is why other countries think it is in their interest to keep referring to China’s initial errors, rather than working toward solutions. For many governments, naming and shaming China appears to be a ploy to divert attention from their own lack of preparedness. Equally concerning is the growing criticism of the World Health Organization, not least by US President Donald Trump, who has attacked the organization for supposedly failing to hold the Chinese government to account. At a time when the top global priority should be to organize a comprehensive coordinated response to the dual health and economic crises unleashed by the coronavirus, this blame game is not just unhelpful but dangerous.

Globally and at the country level, we desperately need to do everything possible to accelerate the development of a safe and effective vaccine, while in the meantime stepping up collective efforts to deploy the diagnostic and therapeutic tools necessary to keep the health crisis under control. Given that there is no other global health organization with the capacity to confront the pandemic, the WHO will remain at the center of the response, whether certain political leaders like it or not.

Having dealt with the WHO to a modest degree during my time as chairman of the UK’s independent Review on Antimicrobial Resistance (AMR), I can say that it is similar to most large, bureaucratic international organizations. Like the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the United Nations, it is not especially dynamic or inclined to think outside the box. But rather than sniping at these organizations from the sidelines, we should be working to improve them. In the current crisis, we should be doing everything we can to help both the WHO and the IMF to play an effective, leading role in the global response.

As I have argued before, the IMF should expand the scope of its annual Article IV assessments to include national public-health systems, given that these are critical determinants in a country’s ability to prevent or at least manage a crisis like the one we are now experiencing. I have even raised this idea with IMF officials themselves, only to be told that such reporting falls outside their remit because they lack the relevant expertise.

That answer was not good enough then, and it definitely isn’t good enough now. If the IMF lacks the expertise to assess public-health systems, it should acquire it. As the COVID-19 crisis makes abundantly clear, there is no useful distinction to be made between health and finance. The two policy domains are deeply interconnected, and should be treated as such.

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In thinking about an international response to today’s health and economic emergency, the obvious analogy is to the 2008 global financial crisis. Everyone knows that crisis started with an unsustainable US housing bubble, which had been fed by foreign savings, owing to the lack of domestic savings in the United States. When the bubble finally burst, many other countries sustained more harm than the US did, just as the COVID-19 pandemic has hit some countries much harder than it hit China.

And yet, not many countries around the world sought to single out the US for presiding over a massively destructive housing bubble, even though the scars from that previous crisis are still visible. On the contrary, many welcomed the US economy’s return to sustained growth in recent years, because a strong US economy benefits the rest of the world.

So, rather than applying a double standard and fixating on China’s undoubtedly large errors, we would do better to consider what China can teach us. Specifically, we should be focused on better understanding the technologies and diagnostic techniques that China used to keep its (apparent) death toll so low compared to other countries, and to restart parts of its economy within weeks of the height of the outbreak.

And, for our own sakes, we also should be considering what policies China could adopt to put itself back on a path toward 6% annual growth, because the Chinese economy inevitably will play a significant role in the global recovery. If China’s post-pandemic growth model makes good on its leaders’ efforts in recent years to boost domestic consumption and imports from the rest of the world, we will all be better off.

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