Between 1959 and 1961, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) underwent the Great Chinese Famine, one of the country’s darkest times. Frank Dikötter, a Dutch historian and author of Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-1962, estimates the number of deaths in at least 45 million. Other estimates are even higher. It was one of the greatest tragedies in human history.
What happened in China during the Great Famine can be a sobering lesson of what not to do during a time of crisis. Although global circumstances are vastly different now, the following question offers itself up quite naturally: Can any lesson be derived from that experience in China 60 years ago for today’s world, that is facing the worst pandemic of the last century?
Any such comparison may strike today’s observers as strange. Not only did this calamity happen long ago, but China was not really on the horizon of many nations during its self-isolation period that lasted for most of the Mao era.
One statistical fact stands out. If science-based projections become true, then over the full-blown course of the pandemic — i.e., way beyond this initial stage — millions of people all over the world could die.
Although this wouldn’t put the COVID 19 pandemic in the same range as China’s Great famine in the sheer cost of lives, it could still be devastating in the number of lives lost and on the effects on most countries’ economies and development prospects.
At the same time, the mere suggestion that something is to be learned from China’s past will strike some as fanciful. After all, its government today has been rightfully criticized severely for its very tactical response to the pandemic – mainly because of its lack of openness.
Blame China, the US, the WHO and the UK
However, anyone who wants to make that argument also needs to acknowledge it isn’t just China that is to be blamed. So is the U.S. federal government, as well as a host of other big country governments (such as the UK’s) and the World Health Organization (WHO). With good reason, they have all been criticized severely for their inadequate response to the pandemic.
Leading scientific experts in the U.S. claim that the toll the pandemic has taken on peoples’ lives could have been significantly reduced under two conditions. First, if all governments would have been more forthright about the seriousness of the situation and, second, if they had promptly implemented appropriate measures of control.
The global message from China’s Great Famine
During China’s Great Famine the Chinese government enacted harmful policies in spite of the damage they were causing to the general population. The government was deaf to any criticism of its actions. Mao Zedong, Chairman of the Communist Party of China, was keen on promoting drastic changes in farming policy, including new farming methods and the prohibition of farm ownership.
Failure to abide by these policies led to brutal punishment. Some, in the throes of starvation, even resorted to cannibalism, which was described as being “on a scale unprecedented in the history of the 20th century.”
Just as Mao wasn’t willing to listen…
While Mao Zedong, lured by his minions into believing that China was getting record crops, Donald Trump, who doesn’t need any prompting, praised himself for what he called “his unprecedented response to the coronavirus pandemic.”
Mao Zedong was ruthless with those who questioned his policies and persisted in his policies that cost the Chinese people dearly. 1959, Peng Dehuai, China’s Secretary of Defense, tried to tell the truth about what was happening in China at the time. He lost his position and was placed under house arrest for sixteen years. In 1961, Liu Shaoqi, then the second Chairman of the PRC, was honest enough in attributing the famine 70% to man-made policies — and only 30% to natural disasters. His honesty proved to be a deadly mistake.
One result of the new farming policies was that a huge regional flood of the Yellow River had affected part of Henan Province and Shandong Province in 1958. The flood affected 741,000 people and 18 villages were inundated.
…Trump isn’t prepared to listen either
Similar to Mao Zedong’s relationship with his dissenters during the Great Famine, President Donald Trump is at odds with his own top scientific advisers on the course to take to control the pandemic. He is in constant disagreement with Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and with other medical experts. In addition, claiming that it would be “counterproductive,” Trump prohibited Fauci from testifying at a House of Representatives hearing on the U.S. response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Fauci wasn’t the only one. Rick Bright, former director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, was ousted after the Trump administration ignored his warnings about the seriousness of the pandemic. Bright had courageously opposed the use of hydroxychloroquine, a drug to combat malaria, to be used on COVID-19 patients, because of the drug’s proven toxicity. On May 5th, Bright, not willing to shrink back, filed a suit with the Office of Special Counsel, a government agency responsible for whistleblower complaints.
Mao and Trump: Testy “doctors” wrecking their nations
As was the case with Mao Zedong’s harmful agricultural policies back then, so it is now with President Trump being adamant about promoting false cures to combat the coronavirus. When Trump suggested in all seriousness that injecting disinfectants under the skin or applying UV light could kill the virus, there was a sharp increase in the number of deaths resulting from poisoning with disinfectants.
Trump’s actions thus riled former President Barak Obama, who until now had been reluctant to criticize the Trump administration until now, called his successor’s handling of the pandemic “a chaotic disaster.” He added, “More than anything, the pandemic has fully, finally torn back the curtain on the idea that so many of the folks in charge know what they are doing. Lot of them aren’t even pretending to be in charge.”
As George Packer, a staff writer for The Atlantic has written, “The crisis demanded a response
that was swift, rational and collective. The United States reacted instead like Pakistan or Belarus –like a country with a shoddy infrastructure and a dysfunctional government whose leaders were too corrupt or stupid to head off mass suffering.”
Trump is more tone-deaf than Mao
For all our Western assumptions about the natural superiority of our system, let’s look at the flipside of this assumption in the Mao-Trump context.
During the time of Mao Zedong, it was much more difficult for a dictatorial leader to hear dissenting voices due to total suppression. This is not the case today in the United States. President Trump needs only to watch almost any TV channel (except FOX News) or read any of the country’s leading newspapers to see or read what reality is like.
Trump’s ability to be immune to that – or to twist the facts in a grotesque fashion – is truly bewildering. It seriously questions his mental health and his fitness for the office he holds.
These are trying times not only for the United States but for the world. On the one hand, the world is anxiously waiting for the reemergence of a U.S. government determined to provide constructive global leadership. On the other hand, it is mentally readying itself for the prospect of another term for Mr. Trump. That such an election outcome would be considered impossible in any other developed nation (other than probably the UK) is no help in the U.S. context.
In the meantime, deaths continue to rise, and the world faces an ominous future. Although there are many examples of wrong policies promoted by powerful leaders in history, never before have the actions of so few affected the quality of life and survival of so many people.