Jim O'Neill praises China government's virus response: 'Thank God this didn't start in somewhere like India'

Key Points
  • Speaking to CNBC's "Squawk Box Europe" on Wednesday, former Goldman Sachs chief economist Jim O'Neill said the virus had "brought out the best and worst of the Chinese model."
  • His comments drew ire from Indian officials.
  • Indian High Commission Minister Vishwesh Negi told CNBC Wednesday that O'Neill's comments were "ill-informed and irresponsible."
Jim O'Neill commends 'fast, aggressive' Chinese response to the coronavirus outbreak

Jim O'Neill, the chair of U.K. think tank Chatham House, on Wednesday commended the "fast, aggressive" Chinese response to the coronavirus outbreak, suggesting western countries should follow suit.

"Thank God this didn't start in somewhere like India, because there's absolutely no way that the quality of Indian governance could move to react in the way that the Chinese have done," O'Neill, the former Goldman Sachs chief economist, told CNBC's "Squawk Box Europe" on Wednesday.

"That's the good side of the Chinese model, and I think you could probably say the same about Brazil too," he added.

His comments drew ire from Indian officials. Indian High Commission Minister Vishwesh Negi told CNBC Wednesday that O'Neill's comments were "ill-informed and irresponsible."

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi convened a government meeting at the weekend and directed officials to identify suitable locations for quarantine facilities and make provisions for critical care. At present, India has only 73 confirmed cases, according to Johns Hopkins University data.

The country has suspended all existing visas except for diplomatic and official UN and international organization visits until April 15 and requires all incoming travelers, including Indian nationals, arriving from or having recently traveled to China, Italy, Iran, Korea, France, Spain and Germany to enter a minimum 14-day quarantine.

In total, the Indian government has evacuated 766 people, including 723 Indian nationals, through three special Indian Air Force flights out of China, all of whom were placed into a quarantine facility set up by the Indian army. On Tuesday, and Indian Air Force military transport aircraft returned 58 Indian nationals from Iran.

"The next sortie by the Indian Air Force aircraft to evacuate Indian national is expected in couple of days. An Indian medical team is already stationed in Qom, Iran to assist the local authorities in screening COVID-19 cases," Negi told CNBC.

"The above points illustrate to a significant degree India's pro-active efforts in mitigating the spread of COVID-19 which resultantly has put the actual number of cases within India to a minimal given the size of the population."

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China response

On one hand, O'Neill acknowledged that the dominance of President Xi Jinping and the diminished responsibility of officials in Wuhan, where the virus originated, may have enabled COVID-19 to initially spread quicker.

"That said — and it's often like a lot of other things when China got hit with a crisis over the last 30 years — once they realized the scale of it, the system seems to be capable of dealing with it pretty quickly, relative to other places, and pretty decisively," O'Neill contended.

Chinese authorities suppressed early warnings from doctors and citizens in Wuhan and forced them to apologize for spreading "lies" and in turn failed to contain the outbreak in its infancy. The government has been widely criticized for its delayed response at the outset, with Raymond James analysts likening the situation to the Soviet Union's handling of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.

Ophthalmologist Li Wenliang sounded the alarm in December when he told a group of doctors on Chinese social media about seven cases he saw. He and seven other whistleblowers were reprimanded by the Wuhan police in January for spreading "illegal and false" information.

Chinese authorities shut down vast swathes of the country's travel infrastructure and industrial production last month, causing a profound short-term shock to the Chinese and global economy. However, new cases of the virus in greater China have now slowed to a trickle, while Italy deals with a rapid escalation in new infections and a spiking death toll.

Negi highlighted that the Indian government supplied 15 tons of medical assistance comprising masks, gloves and other emergency medical equipment to China on 26 February 2020.

The outbreak is now a global pandemic while new cases in China have begun to slow, and Beijing is now attempting to cast doubt over whether the virus actually originated in China at all.

A 'globalized people'

O'Neill, the former commercial secretary to the U.K. Treasury suggested that western governments dealing with outbreaks of their own, such as Italy and the U.K., should look to emulate China, South Korea and Singapore in the swift deployment of aggressive containment measures.

He also argued that finance and economic policymakers must begin treating health policy more seriously and think of it in the same way as other investment spending, and criticized the protectionist agenda of the U.S. and other nations on international trade.

"Unless we get rid of all forms of communication, we are globalized people and we need to think and learn from each other about the right solutions at any moment in time for all of us," O'Neill concluded.

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Correction: The headline on this article has been updated to more accurately reflect comments by Jim O'Neill, the chair of U.K. think tank Chatham House.