There are many ways to think about how the United States and China, the world’s two leading powers, stack up as the COVID-19 pandemic has taken tens of thousands of lives and turned the world upside down in just a few weeks. Beijing’s lack of transparency and timeliness in disclosing details of the virus after its initial outbreak in central China, and the extraordinary lapse in wasted time in the United States between early reports of a dangerous spread of the disease and the first government efforts to inform the public of the true risks and prepare to limit the damage, already fuel plenty of debate, with more to come.
There will be much discussion, too, about the relative economic damage from the pandemic, and the speed and depth of recovery in China and America, just as there has already been a lot of speculation about the longer-term consequences for the two countries’ “soft power.” The Chinese government and billionaires like Alibaba’s Jack Ma are sending medical teams, masks, ventilators and other relief supplies to a broad list of countries, while President Donald Trump’s administration largely insists on an “America First” approach, as it did when it attacked the company 3M for selling its much-needed N95 respirator masks to other countries when they were in short supply in the United States.
One critical aspect of this comparison between China and the U.S. seems to have been widely overlooked, however, even though it could have huge consequences going forward. In China, the virus first struck and remained mostly confined to Wuhan, which to be sure is a large city and an important industrial center, but is by no means one of China’s largest cities, nor a center of gravity for its economy, never mind the world.