China has recovered more quickly than most Western countries from the Covid-19 pandemic. Photo: AFP/Hector Retamal

“How did it [Covid-19] spread through the rest of the world, and it didn’t spread through China?,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin asked in a June 23 television interview. “That’s what we want to know.”

That is quite a different question than the one US President Donald Trump asked in a May 21 briefing: “Do you think that China is giving the right number [of Covid-19 infections]? I don’t think so.” The Administration, it seems, has shifted ever-so-slightly from denial – the first stage of grieving in the Elizabeth Kübler-Ross list – to anger.

Secretary Mnuchin’s question should have been: Why didn’t the pandemic spread through any part of East Asia? Infection and death rates in all of East Asia are minuscule compared to those in the West (according to the worldometer.com tabulation in the chart below).

I don’t have to believe China’s numbers, but I do believe Hong Kong’s, and there is no reason to think that the infection rate in Hong Kong is much different from that in major Chinese cities. Even if China’s Covid-19 infection rate was understated by a factor of 10, it would be much closer to South Korea’s than to that of any Western country. 

A follow-up question might have asked: Why is the pandemic out of control in the United States, Brazil, Russia and India, but not in Germany or other industrial countries? The European Community may single out travelers from the United States along with Brazil and Russia because of America’s failure to control the epidemic, The New York Times reported June 23.

Germany began development of a test kit for Covid-19 during the first week in January after public health officials traveled to Wuhan and consulted with local medical authorities, and had a million kits manufactured before the first German case was diagnosed.

East Asia, for the most part, attacked the pandemic in the same way, with early lockdowns, popular acceptance of social distancing and mask-wearing, massive forensic testing, and the early use of electronic tracing through smartphone location and other electronic data.

I published the first report of China’s big data analysis of phone locations and test results to isolate Covid-19 carriers at the individual level on March 3, and my colleague Andrew Salmon explained South Korea’s similar approach on March 28.

This British news report showed China’s tracing app at work last March 10. Similar apps were introduced in Singapore in March. South Korea had apps available in the first week of February. 

In the US, meanwhile, the The Wall Street Journal reported June 22, “Smartphone apps meant to track where people have traveled or whom they have been near are mostly buggy, little-used or not ready for major rollouts, raising concerns as restrictions lift and infections rise.”

A blend of incompetence and patronage made US jurisdictions dependent on “a patchwork of buggy or little-used apps, made by partners ranging from startups on shoestring budgets to academics to consulting firms…None appears ready for a major rollout, even as more local governments ease restrictions,” the Journal wrote.

China, by contrast, distributed a tracing app embedded in the popular WeChat and Alipay smartphone platforms by mid-February.

East Asia is already back to work, except for Japan, where the number of workers physically present at their jobs is about 10% below the normal level, according to Google’s tabulation of cellphone location data.

The US bounced back to 30% below normal at the end of May from 50% below normal in April and has remained steady since then. Other high-frequency data, for example daily tax holding data from the US Treasury and weekly retail sales data from Johnson Redbook and other private sources, confirm Google’s result.

US economic activity has bounced off the bottom but remains stuck at a low level.

The consensus forecasts for the US, Europe and China respectively diverge widely. According to Bloomberg’s survey of economists, China will show positive year-on-year growth of about 2% during the second quarter, while GDP in the US and the European Union will fall by 10% and 8%, respectively.

There is no mystery to China’s resilience – no Fu Manchu conspiracy to infect the world, no secret vaccine, no hidden mass graves. There are only two ways to suppress a highly contagious virus. One is to lock everyone down, and the other is to trace and if necessary isolate every likely carrier. 

New York State, the initial epicenter of the virus in the United States, registered more than 10,000 new cases of coronavirus per day during mid-April, but now shows fewer than 800 a day. Texas had fewer than 800 cases per day in mid-April, but logged more than 5,000 on June 22. There is no mystery at all to these numbers.

When New York’s infection rate peaked, the city’s lockdown brought workplace mobility down to 70% below normal. Houston County meanwhile never reduced workplace activity to more than 30% below normal and went back to work quickly. 

Thirty of America’s 50 states have reproductive rates (so-called Rt) above 1, which means that the average infectious person will spread the virus to more than one other person. That is a formula for exponential growth, as we presently observe in Texas, California, Florida and Arizona. Those four states make up a third of America’s GDP.

Apart from its eagerness to return to work, Texas also tested only 6.1% of its population for Covid-19, vs. 18% in New York. Florida is only slightly better at 7.6% of the population. California tested just 8.6%, the US average.