China faced the arrival of COVID-19 armed with new infrastructure, tools, and personnel that it had developed as part of a nationwide overhaul of its public health system in the wake of the 2003 SARS epidemic. The country learned two major lessons from SARS: it needed to increase its scientific professionalism and transparency, and it needed to build upon the successes of its authoritarian disease control capabilities. These two lessons were on full display during China’s COVID-19 response. The goals and methods they implied were sometimes in contradiction with each other, however, and ultimately they failed to prevent a catastrophic pandemic.

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