A Tale of Two Systems: How to Deal with a Natural Disaster

The following reflections were prompted by a comment from my wife. She had been reading one of the Danish newspapers in regard to the Wuhan Coronavirus Pneumonia. A journalist asked a Danish medical expert why SARS (in 2003) or the Coronavirus were detected first in China. The specialist’s answer: because the Chinese have excellent and sophisticated methods for detecting such outbreaks very early. Indeed, they are now among the best in the world.

This observation leads me to reflect on the difference between two systems in dealing with a natural disaster. I should say that we also had a discussion concerning this matter at a recent branch meeting of the Communist Party of Australia.

System 1: Australia’s neo-liberal capitalist system. Australia is one of the last hold-outs for a defunct neo-liberal agenda, which most countries in the world have rejected. Come the present southern summer’s bushfire crisis (which is by no means over) and Australia was relying on a hopelessly under-resourced volunteer fire-fighting service in the countryside. The relatively small numbers did their absolute best, but they were hampered from the very beginning. Why? They were expected to protect ‘private property’ first. They simply did not have anywhere near the resources to do their jobs, and were forced to ‘crowd-source’ for basic items like smoke-masks. The regime’s response: they ‘want’ to be there, so the regime should not be in the business of assisting them. Add to this the prime minister’s holiday in Hawaii and you get the picture. Even more, the Australian fore-fighting services do not have even one air-borne water-bomber. They have to rent them, believe it or not, from the United States.

System 2: China’s socialist system. On 20 January of this year, a new virus was detected in Wuhan. It is called either Wuhan or Novel Coronavirus Pneumonia. Immediately, all the of the state’s resources swung into action. Even though the virus is classed in China as Level B, the decision was made to hit it early as though it were a Level A outbreak. Specialists focused their energy, detection kits were widely distributed, Chinese medical experts kept in close contact with the World Health Organisation, all those even suspected of having the virus were quarantined, all aircraft arriving in China are inspected before passengers disembark and have been checked for the virus. On it goes. Today, I read that Wuhan, a city of 10 million people and the capital of Hubei Province, has been locked down. Even the expert who first identified SARS in 2003, Zhong Nanshan who is a household name in China, has become involved, travelling to Wuhan to bring his 84 years of experience to bear. All of the actions by Chinese have been praised by the World Health Organisation as extremely efficient and contributing significantly to curbing the spread of the virus.

How can China do this and Australia not (or indeed any other of the small number of Western countries)? Simply put, China is a socialist country with extremely high levels of planning and state resources. One of the great myths since the beginning (in 1978) of the Reform and Opening Up is that China abandoned planning for the sake of a socialist market economy. This is rubbish: planning has been elevated to a whole new level, so much so that some are now arguing that China is achieving a dialectical transcendence of the old opposition between planning and market.