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There is a Vast Middle Ground Between the China Approach and the US Approach to COVID

September 12, 2020

Today’s NYTimes features an article by Javier Hernandez titled “How China Brought Nearly 200 Million Students Back to School” that provides a marked contrast to the approach taken by the United States. It contrasts China’s totalitarianism with the ultra-democratic decentralized US approach:

China’s top-down, state-led political system allows the party to drive its vast bureaucracy in pursuit of a single target — an approach that would be nearly impossible anywhere else in the world.

In the United States, where the pandemic is still raging, discussions about how and when to resume in-person classes have been fraught. An absence of a national strategy has left school districts to craft their own approach. Coronavirus tests can be hard to come by. Parents have expressed misgivings about sending their children back to classrooms. Teachers’ unions have threatened to strike, while college students have flouted rules against gatherings.

The advantages and disadvantages of totalitarianism are evident in reading the article. The unity of purpose and even-handed AND heavy-handed application of rules results in compliance with rules issued by medical professionals and scientists. But adherence to those rules comes at a price… and the price is teachers working double duty as medical screeners and instructors and having to spend hours learning new protocols that change as new facts emerge. But the consequence of these stringent rules are salutary to the workforce… at least according to the propaganda produced by the state:

“When parents start a new day at work knowing that their children are well-protected at school,” read a recent commentary by Xinhua, the official news agency, “they will be filled with a sense of assurance living in this land where life is a top priority.”

Mr. Hernandez’ article also offers one additional example of how China’s totalitarianism differs from the United States’ laissez-faire approach: the state is providing its schools with the resources needed to execute the reopening:

Since (the phased reopening in Spring), the government has invested heavily in equipping schools with masks, gloves, infrared thermometers and other equipment. An elementary school in the eastern city of Xuzhou, for example, said it had 8,000 masks, 400 bottles of hand sanitizer, 440 pounds of ethanol and 1,000 packages of tissue on hand.

Meanwhile, in our country schools have not received any earmarked funding from the federal government and none was on offer in the recent “skinny” pandemic funding package offered by the GOP. Worse, the GOP-led central government has no intention of providing any financial support to the States who are the primary source of funding public education.

But, as Mr. Hernandez notes, the Chinese system of authoritarianism has its own flaws. He offers several examples of pushback that indicate that the current model may not be sustainable, citing complaints from disgruntled teachers and stifled college students. Yet even with these flaws, he concludes his article with this observation:

Despite the hassle of some of the restrictions, many families welcome the resumption of classes. After months of leading makeshift lessons in their living rooms and nagging their children about playing too many video games, parents are relieved to be able to send them back to classes and after-school tutoring programs.

“We controlled the epidemic well and it will be good for our country,” said Sofia Tang, the mother of a high school freshman in the eastern city of Hangzhou. “If we handled this at all like they are handling it overseas, there would be riots.”

And, needless to say, if we tried to handle this like China did there would be riots as well. But there is a middle ground between the fundamentally dishonest way our central handled the pandemic and the school reopening and the way the Chinese government did. If our national leaders had appealed to our sense of community instead of resorting to partisan finger-pointing at the outset of the outbreak we could have achieved more unity of purpose. Had our President leveled with the public about the true dangers of COVID-19 instead of dismissing it as a “flu” and urged all Americans to follow the advice of epidemiologists we might have infection rates that mirror those in Europe instead of dwarfing them. Had our US Department of Education worked with the CDC to develop uniform protocols for the opening of schools and colleges instead of allowing each State and ultimately each school district to devise their own we might have done better. All of these actions could have taken place if we valued the expertise available to us and sought unity instead of division. We missed an opportunity for unity… let’s hope that if a second wave occurs we seize the opportunity to do it right.

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