The blame game

Philippe Lemoine has a four part series on how China handled the Covid-19 epidemic. It’s far and away the definitive account of this issue; no other article even comes close.

I discussed part one in a previous Econlog post; here’s a excerpt from part 2:

[T]he claim that Western countries would not have botched their pandemic response had China not lied is not simply false, it is a transparent attempt by Western governments to deflect blame for their own shambolic incompetence. (This essay about the European pandemic response, or lack thereof, is particularly instructive, but one could say very similar things about the response in the US and several other countries.) In fact, many countries were able to deal with the crisis effectively, not only in East Asia but also in Australia, New Zealand, and Eastern Europe, despite the fact that, in many cases, they were more closely connected to China in general and to Wuhan in particular.

But most Western leaders and many of their public health officials didn’t seem to care about SARS-CoV-2 until it started killing people under their jurisdiction. As late as March 7th (after more than 3,000 people had died in China and the death toll had begun to climb in Italy), French President Macron went to the theatre with his wife to encourage people to continue to go out despite the pandemic. Countless other comparably clueless statements and gestures were made by public figures and their advisors in Western countries during that period, long after we knew that human-to-human transmission was possible. And yet, in spite of this ineptitude, we’re asked to believe that, had Chinese officials told them that human-to-human transmission was possible a week earlier, things would have been totally different.

The question of moral luck

On the other hand, once Chinese officials realised that sustained human-to-human transmission was occurring, they acted far more quickly and decisively than any Western government. And they did so without the benefit of a demonstration of just how dangerous this new virus could be as it attacked another country. Not only did Western governments waste weeks despite knowing more and having more time to prepare than China, but Western public health experts even criticised the measures taken by China to suppress the epidemic. Now the same newspapers who printed those rebukes are insisting that China should have taken those measures sooner.

Even if it were entirely reasonable to blame China for failing to quarantine Wuhan earlier, the recklessness and irresponsibility of certain Western governments and media outlets precludes them from doing the blaming. Not only did most of them fail to act quickly and decisively enough to prevent disaster, but some lied at least as much as the Chinese government did. This is certainly true of the French government and of the US government. Astonishingly, people seem to be happy to focus on the shortcomings of China instead of holding their own governments to account for failing to prepare for the pandemic when the seriousness of the situation became apparent. China may be a convenient scapegoat, but the citizens of Western countries should not be falling for such obvious misdirection.

Each of the four segments is very long. For those who choose not to read part 2, the bottom line is that China gradually became aware of human to human transmission of Covid-19 between about January 10 and January 20, with public statements by Chinese officials lagging about a week behind their evolving private views of the severity of the epidemic. This is not to justify their behavior, but it’s not all that far off from how information is handled by western governments during outbreaks such as the swine flu.

BTW, the Lemoine essay came out before Bob Woodward’s revelations about Trump admitting he’d lied to the American public about the severity of the epidemic. But there were already so many other Trump Covid-19 lies out there that Woodward’s revelation makes almost no difference. It’s positively mind-boggling that any American would obsess about China not being forthcoming about Covid-19, when our own government was far worse on that score.



37 Responses to “The blame game”

  1. Gravatar of Ray Lopez Ray Lopez
    11. September 2020 at 13:58

    Good article but two things missing: (1) Europe got hit with a more virulent strain of Covid-19 than Asia (614G vs 614 D strain), and (2) the Covid-19 virus is almost certainly man-made, so China is indeed to blame (Y. Deigen and Bulletin of Atomic Scientists article of June 4, 2020. Hat tip: Dr. Ben Cole for second cite in point (2).

  2. Gravatar of Anonymous Anonymous
    11. September 2020 at 14:48

    I’m not saying Trump didn’t lie, but the link you use doesn’t really seem to support it. Don’t get me wrong, he’s told plenty of lies, but I also often see these type of articles like “He lied! Here’s the lie:” and then they say something that is true. So for example, saying you downplayed something doesn’t mean you lied about it- right?

  3. Gravatar of Benjamin Cole Benjamin Cole
    11. September 2020 at 15:21

    A lab-created virus, first seen in Wuhan where there are CCP bsl-4 virus labs manipulating bat viruses, spreads from Wuhan and causes a global pandemic.

    Western democracies flub their responses, as democracies are often slow and clumsy in response to threats, foreign and domestic.

    Trump is a boob.

  4. Gravatar of Sean Sean
    11. September 2020 at 15:26

    The problem is culturally and our political systems diffusion of power wasn’t capable of a better response. Cuomo (who was basically the highest democrat in the crisis) said the exact same things as trump of downplaying the virus to not scare people. Besides just masks for us to contain the virus we would have needed to close the border. And likely shut down domestic air travel and the interstate highway system. We would have needed forced 2 week quarantines for any one that would travel. And that’s not at homes that would be the Taiwan system of taking away someone’s freedom for two weeks and putting them in a hotel. That was never going to happen.

    Once you realize that the best policy was herd immunity with some temporary lockdowns to boost medical capacity and develop policies to protect high risks.

  5. Gravatar of Market Fiscalist Market Fiscalist
    11. September 2020 at 17:25

    Hi Scott,

    I’m curious to know your views on this video that has been getting some publicity lately.

  6. Gravatar of Benjamin Cole Benjamin Cole
    11. September 2020 at 17:28

    A China-based virologist claims to have proof the Wuhan virus came from a lab, although many virologists say that is more-or-less known already.

    From the NY Post yesterday:

    “Dr. Li-Meng Yan, a scientist who says she did some of the earliest research into COVID-19 last year, made the comments Friday during an interview on British talk show “Loose Women.”

    When asked where the deadly virus that has killed more than 900,000 around the globe comes from, Yan — speaking via video chat from a secret location — replied, “It comes from the lab — the lab in Wuhan and the lab is controlled by China’s government.'”


    Indisputably, the CCP has suppressed any investigation into the origins of the C19 virus.

    I have no idea if Dr. Li-Meng Yan really knows her stuff, or is just a publicity seeker.

    The fact that Dr. Li-Meng Yan must go into hiding to express her views is now considered a norm, not an outrage.

    Western media must put on adult diapers whenever they discuss Trump. The CCP crushing any investigation into the origins of the Wuhan virus…well, is not so interesting.

    Will bsl-4 labs, in China or elsewhere, leak in the future, causing more global pandemics?

    The answer is: Trump skipped a WWII memorial service as he did not want his hairdo mussed up in the rain. Keep foremost in mind the important issues.

  7. Gravatar of Benjamin Cole Benjamin Cole
    11. September 2020 at 17:45

    Interesting story from Vox:

    “China has taken a shortcut in the global sprint to develop and deliver vaccines for the novel coronavirus. Sinopharm, the state-owned company developing two of China’s leading vaccine candidates, told China National Radio on Monday that it has already vaccinated hundreds of thousands of Chinese citizens — even though the company’s phase 3 clinical trials have not yet concluded.”


    Seems to me that CCP-Beijing skipping phase 3 may be justifiable, under the unusual circumstances. I thought the same thing about Putin.

    Autocratic creeps are not always wrong.

  8. Gravatar of Carl Carl
    11. September 2020 at 19:07

    @Benjamin Cole

    Seems to me that CCP-Beijing skipping phase 3 may be justifiable, under the unusual circumstances. I thought the same thing about Putin.

    Can’t say that I’ll be volunteering to try either one out.

  9. Gravatar of Misinformation and foreign policy – Finance Market House Misinformation and foreign policy – Finance Market House
    11. September 2020 at 21:28

    […] account of China’s role in the pandemic. I cannot recommend them highly enough.  Over at MoneyIllusion I discuss the second essay, and here I’d like to discuss the concluding paragraphs of the […]

  10. Gravatar of Jason Jason
    11. September 2020 at 21:51

    How much do You suppose Philippe Lemoine is being paid By the CCP? 🧐🤨😒🤢🤮

  11. Gravatar of bill bill
    12. September 2020 at 05:44

    One quibble with everyone using the word “admitted”. To me that implies some sort of “force” or “coercion” (not the right words, but I’m not sure what is) on the part of the questioner. An interrogation. Trump freely states that he downplayed and is downplaying covid.

  12. Gravatar of Michael Rulle Michael Rulle
    12. September 2020 at 06:20

    1. Trump Lied: I do recall the flatten the curve presentation sometime in mid March. The “do nothing” projection was 2+ million deaths. The duel quotes by Trump which “proves” he lied were 1 month apart—-as if no new information was had. While Fauci May have reasons to protect his own reputation—-he basically said they were not true. How can that be? We heard them. The media presented these quotes as if they were said at the same time instead of one month apart—-cherry picked —-what else was said at those times?

    2. I can believe China was “first”. Of course they were first—-they were the ones who had a Manhattan style breakout before we ever heard of Covid. Are you giving them some kind of credit because the rest of the world did not respond faster? Was there no delay between the virus and when they stopped flying people all over the world?

    3. East Asia has about 1/25th to 1/50th of the reported death rate than Western Europe, North America, and South America. Do you believe it was because they “reacted faster and better?” Is there scientific evidence for that? No.

    4. I was under the impression that Covid cannot be stopped without a Vaccine. It can be slowed down, and that matters, but is that true? I don’t know. How does N.Y. go from from the highest death rate in the world to a rate similar to some parts of East Asia? NY still has the highest total death rate per mill in the world—-or close to it—-higher than Lombardi for example—I don’t know who is even close. But today it is among the lowest in the world on a current basis. What does that mean? Maybe Wuhan is the same as N.Y. Very high deaths early, very low deaths later. Does that mean N.Y. has done it the best just as you say China has done it the best? You admit China has not told the truth about its own numbers.

    We know a lot——but not nearly enough. It is good you present arguments against the narrative ——but I don’t know what your major point is. What should we be doing now? You are less explicit on this.

  13. Gravatar of cbu cbu
    12. September 2020 at 08:27

    @Benjamin Cole

    Yan Limeng’s claim was disputed by the Hong Kong University.

    As for the vaccine, I think phase 3 started 3 months ago. Giving it to hundreds of thousands more is like expanding the scope of phase 3, except those additional tests are not done in a randomized, double-blind fashion.

  14. Gravatar of Todd Kreider Todd Kreider
    12. September 2020 at 08:28

    Lemoine: “In fact, many countries were able to deal with the crisis effectively, not only in East Asia but also in Australia, New Zealand, and Eastern Europe, despite the fact that, in many cases, they were more closely connected to China in general and to Wuhan in particular.”

    Taiwan cut travel early and Japan supposedly did a lot wrong from botching the handling of the Princess Diamond early on to issuing a warning to Tokyo and Osaka to try to stay home several weeks after many countries had lockdowns (an ineffective policy, which even Fauci said in January “don’t work, historically) to testing the least out of the OECD, yet they have had 50 times fewer Covid-19 deaths per capita than the U.S. the U.K. Spain, Italy and Sweden and 25 times fewer Covid -19 deaths than Germany which supposedly did great.

    It’s clear that initial conditions, especially the make up of the population including levels of immunity, were mostly what determined the number of fatalities, not what governments did to “deal with the virus.” Epidemiologists know this; economists still don’t.

  15. Gravatar of Scott Sumner Scott Sumner
    12. September 2020 at 10:22

    Everyone, No one found a single mistake in Lemoine’s long essays? Really?

    If you are not even going to read Lemoine then don’t expect me to take your criticisms seriously. But then if you believe the virus was created in a lab, and have already made up your mind, then you probably don’t want to read Lemoine and have your conspiracy theories challenged.

    Anonymous, Not sure if you are trolling when you say you have a hard time finding Trump’s Covid-19 lies. How about Trump’s dozens of lies on America’s testing fiasco? Or his claims that America’s doing better than most other places? Trump has lied about almost every single aspect of this pandemic. Do you not pay attention to his twitter feed?

    And “downplayed”???? Seriously? You mean like China downplayed Covid-19?

    Sean, I’ll take Taiwan’s “taking away freedom” any day if it means I can live without fear of Covid-19, and with restaurants and schools all open and no lockdowns. What kind of freedom do you think we have here?

    Jason, How much did the CCP pay Lemoine to criticize the CCP? I don’t know. How much are you paid by Trump to comment here? And what sort of childhood trauma caused you to grow up to be a conspiracy nut? The world is full of questions, and short on answers.

  16. Gravatar of Skeptical Skeptical
    12. September 2020 at 10:49

    Of course Trump lied, he lies about everything.

    With that out of the way, this is a great piece. The CCP doesn’t come out looking great, necessarily, but that is entirely irrelevant to the outcomes in the West.

    At that point the measure is “Given the information at hand, what actions were taken and what were the results?” Easy to compare and contrast Taiwan/SK with UK/US.

    My one quibble and it’s not even with the piece, is that in my view the US was never going to be able to replicate a Taiwan. The proper comparison point is US to Brazil, or US to Mexico.

  17. Gravatar of bill bill
    12. September 2020 at 11:49

    I think Canada is the most appropriate comparison.

  18. Gravatar of Thomas Hutcheson Thomas Hutcheson
    12. September 2020 at 12:36

    Aside from the Trump administration, what other governments have blamed their slow response on China?

    The link about criticism of the Chinese response was about interprovincial travel restrictions, not mandatory business closings and SIP orders.

  19. Gravatar of Thomas Hutcheson Thomas Hutcheson
    12. September 2020 at 12:50

    Statements downplaying the severity o f Covid 19 were not necessarily “lies” in the sense of a statement whose intent was to lead hearers to an incorrect belief if the speaker thought that a factually correct statement would lead to an incorrect belief = “panic.”

    The proper criticism of the President’s downplaying severity was that it created (helped to create) distrust and confusion when later on public health officials wished transmit (changing) recommendations. It needlessly focused on the ontological question of how to characterize the disease instead of the pragmatic question of what the most cost effective response should be.

  20. Gravatar of Skeptical Skeptical
    12. September 2020 at 14:34


    Canada is a country of 35 million people with extremely different demographics compared to the US.

    Brazil is a country of 211 million people with diversity levels that compare much closer to the US.

    Inb4 a conversation of what counts as diversity, hard pass.

  21. Gravatar of Mark Barbieri Mark Barbieri
    12. September 2020 at 15:10

    I’m always amazed by how good Scott’s columns are and how bad the comments to them are. I can’t think of another site where the difference is so extreme. What is it about Sumner that attracts such crazed commenters?

  22. Gravatar of Benjamin Cole Benjamin Cole
    12. September 2020 at 17:44


    The link you provide is linked to a SCMP story that does not actually address the origins of the Wuhan C19


    The above Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists is the best overview of the situation….

  23. Gravatar of Benjamin Cole Benjamin Cole
    12. September 2020 at 18:52

    “China, one of the worldwide leaders in the race to produce an effective COVID-19 vaccine, is deploying a nasal spray inoculation that has been approved to begin Phase 1 clinical trials in November.

    The trial is recruiting 100 individuals to participate, and joins the growing number of Chinese inoculation candidates already in queue. Beijing has been particularly aggressive on the vaccine front, and is already delivering vaccines to the general population prior to completion of clinical trials. Russia is also doing the same.—Yahoo News


    I guess sometimes it pays to live in a dictatorship. The CCP will have China inoculated while Westerners are cowering in cubbyholes.

  24. Gravatar of Ray Lopez Ray Lopez
    13. September 2020 at 01:04

    @everybody, especially Ben Cole: see this link for “Gain of function” (GoF) research and a petition to place a moratorium on the same, which Obama did in 2014 but which Trump lifted in 2017. “Gain of function” is making modifications to viruses so they become easier to infect humans, e.g., the SARS-CoV-2 (Covid-19 virus) which has a huge and quite unnatural GoF. Recall SARS-CoV (a close cousin of the Covid-19 virus) escaped four times from maximum security BSL-4 labs. Private R&D outfits don’t do much GoF (see the petition, note the Harvard professors) but government bioweapons labs do.

  25. Gravatar of Postkey Postkey
    13. September 2020 at 03:28

    “No, the coronavirus wasn’t made in a lab. A genetic analysis shows it’s from nature
    Scientists took conspiracy theories about SARS-CoV-2’s origins seriously, and debunked them “

  26. Gravatar of Benjamin Cole Benjamin Cole
    13. September 2020 at 04:40


    Beware of planted news stories, and compromised news outlets.

    The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists (that I cite) has a long and respected history, and a track record of not being hawks, or of being in anyone’s pocket for that matter.

    The article you cited goes back to March. A little early in the game to be making definitive statements, no? Might you guess someone had an agenda?

    See Ray Lopez above. Besides, Beijing/CCP’s news-information-muzzling blackout on the origins of the Wuhan C19 virus are not encouraging.

    OT but worth pondering: Michael Pettis, one of the leading China scholars, says that China can only grow with more state control, not less.

    “China’s economy can only grow with more state control not less
    Beijing’s repeated pledges to shrink the state are both empty and impossible”

  27. Gravatar of cbu cbu
    13. September 2020 at 11:11

    Benjamin Cole,

    This research paper debunks the lab-origin theory:

    A US researcher who has worked with and trained Wuhan Institute of Virology researchers in the past gives 4 reasons why a coronavirus leak would be extremely unlikely:

    In the following article, the author interviewed 5 scientists, some of them worked with WIV, none thinks that the lab leak theory is probable:

    Australian intelligence knocks back US government’s Wuhan lab virus claim:

    No wonder even Five Eyes doubt the lab leak claim:

  28. Gravatar of Postkey Postkey
    13. September 2020 at 13:09

    “The article you cited goes back to March. A little early in the game to be making definitive statements, no? Might you guess someone had an agenda?”
    Play the wo/man, not the ball.

    “The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists (that I cite) has a long and respected history, and a track record of not being hawks, or of being in anyone’s pocket for that matter.”
    Appealing to authority.

    “Did the SARS-CoV-2 virus arise from a bat coronavirus research program in a Chinese laboratory? Very possibly.”

    So not definitely. ‘Very possibly’ – good enough for conspiracy theorists?

  29. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    13. September 2020 at 13:53

    Everyone, Still no one able to debunk anything in Lemoine’s 4 extremely long articles? Nothing?


    Mark, You asked:

    “What is it about Sumner that attracts such crazed commenters?”

    Two reasons:

    1. My Trump posts.
    2. My refusal to ban bad commenters.

  30. Gravatar of Benjamin Cole Benjamin Cole
    13. September 2020 at 17:55


    Again this article was written in March, and attempts to present the bat-pangolin mystery connection to an actual pandemic centered on Wuhan, where the CCP operates bsl-4 labs where bat viruses were being manipulated (as a matter of extensive public record). Sheesh, the Nature guys even talk about the wet markets.

    Some Indian researchers have a point of view, developed in August. But they are Indians, so….

    Again, you can believe what you want to believe and there are plenty of biased stories out there.

    In the US, the Wuhan-C19 virus has become politicized, and if you like Trump you believe the virus came from a CCP lab, and if you dislike Trump, then you don’t. Follow the usual bias-confirmation tactics thereafter.

    But the question stands: Why has the CCP/Beijing crushed earnest investigations into the origins of the Wuhan C19 virus?This is indisputable.

    So we have a global pandemic, and the CCP/Beijing is preventing an investigation into its origins. Oh, how nice.

    Side note to Sumner: I don’t challenge Lemoine. Western democracies have bungled responses to the the COVID-19 pandemic. Trump has bungled (although state and local governments control lockdowns and other rules). Macron bungled. Spain bungled, Great Britain bungled. Italy bungled. I see a pattern.

    Possibly only Sweden acted sensibly, if one accepts we live in weak-government democracies. If you live in a weak government democracy (which we prefer) then lockdowns get a mixed result of some reduction in deaths and huge economic costs.

    Even now, the autocratic-despot Russians and Chinese are implementing wide-scale testing of vaccines (hundreds of thousands of test-patients in China alone) while the US dithers. I suspect the vaccines will work with some mild side-effects. Those side-effects will trigger endless debates and delay in the West, unless we are lucky.

    China uses hundreds of thousands of citizens as guinea pigs?

    That’s one way to look at it. But I think the risks are worth the potential upsides. Putin-Xi may be right in this particular policy issue.

  31. Gravatar of Anonymous Anonymous
    13. September 2020 at 18:10

    “Anonymous, Not sure if you are trolling when you say you have a hard time finding Trump’s Covid-19 lies. How about Trump’s dozens of lies on America’s testing fiasco? Or his claims that America’s doing better than most other places? Trump has lied about almost every single aspect of this pandemic. Do you not pay attention to his twitter feed?”

    Not trolling. You’re always saying “read more carefully”. As I said I’m not disputing Trump lies, just didn’t see it in your link.

    Trump in addition to lying also exaggerates A LOT. And it annoys me when someone says an exaggeration is a lie, or worse, something completely true is a lie, which happens a lot actually. I’m not saying you are doing this (on purpose anyway) but it does happen a lot in the media. And it really bothers me when news media says something is a lie and it’s not- that means they are lying. At least if you are going to call someone a lier, try really hard to not lie yourself.

    And no, I don’t like Twitter and don’t use it.

  32. Gravatar of Postkey Postkey
    14. September 2020 at 00:16

    The ‘paper’ by Botao Xiao1, and Lei Xiao is discussed here:

    “05:55 but nowhere does it say that the main
    05:57 source of the virus was the Wuhan CDC or
    06:00 any other research facility . . . “

  33. Gravatar of Michael Rulle Michael Rulle
    14. September 2020 at 05:54

    @mark barbieri—-don’t be such an ass-kisser—that is no fun. first, some commenters are pretty good. most are consistent—but lets face it—once we go into Trump land all sanity is challenged, including Scott’s. Scott is providing a public service—a place where we can all emote about what we don’t anything about—and in exchange he forces us to challenge our brains when he writes on monetary policy–after all if one reads ONLY his Trump junk—there really is something wrong with you!

  34. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    14. September 2020 at 08:16

    Ben, You said:

    “Side note to Sumner: I don’t challenge Lemoine.”

    LOL, you obviously haven’t read his piece, so don’t pretend you have. He completely demolishes all your arguments.

  35. Gravatar of Postkey Postkey
    15. September 2020 at 06:13

    “On Saturday we reported that Dr. Li-Meng Yan – a Chinese virologist (MD, PhD) who fled the country, leaving her job at a prestigious Hong Kong university – appeared last week on British television where she claimed SARS-CoV-2, the virus which causes COVID-19, was created by Chinese scientists in a lab. “

  36. Gravatar of Philippe Lemoine Philippe Lemoine
    15. September 2020 at 12:22

    Thank you very much for your kind words about my essay and for sharing it with the readers of your blog. Unfortunately, it hasn’t received as much attention so far, but in retrospect I don’t know why this surprised me given the hysteria about China at the moment. As far as I know, no one has even made a somewhat convincing effort at addressing my arguments yet, but people nevertheless continue to peddle the narrative I set out to debunk with this piece. So far, the only response has been people accusing me of being paid by the CCP to write this essay or repeating arguments that I criticized in excruciating detail in the piece, showing they hadn’t even read it. For those who are interested, I published a more detailed account on my blog, which includes some technical details that had to be removed for Quillette, especially about the lab escape theory.

  37. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    15. September 2020 at 14:19

    Thanks Philippe, I did look at your blog on one technical issue, and am greatly impressed by the quality of your research.

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