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The problems that drove the coronavirus are likely to remain | American Enterprise Institute


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.

People wearing masks shop at a market in Wuhan, Hubei province, China January 23, 2020, in this still image taken from video. Via China News Service/Reuters TV

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.

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