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The Corona Shock
With Europe and the U.S. battling the second wave of the virus, the West ought to ask itself some tough questions.
Welcome to the second installment of The Other Continent. Twice a month Benjamin Wolf, who grew up in the Austrian countryside and all over Europe and now lives in Vienna, and Alexander Hurst, a Clevelander transplanted to Paris, will have a brief back and forth about Europe’s place in the world from a transatlantic perspective — with a particular focus on climate and tech. We’d love to get your feedback, so feel free to send us your reactions and thoughts. If you like this post, then subscribe!
Benjamin: The West has handled the coronavirus pandemic disastrously. It’s become almost trite to say that, but I don’t think many have realized how thoroughly the “old” West, by which I mainly mean Europe and North America, has failed and is still failing. The numbers are stark: Almost 700,000 citizens in the West have died from COVID-19 so far – more than half the world’s total death toll – out of a combined population of 1 billion people. The states of East Asia – from authoritarian China to democratic Japan, Taiwan and South Korea, to emerging Southeast Asia – had several thousands (that’s four digits) of deaths to bemoan. Out of a combined population of 2 billion.
In a somewhat provocative but pointed analysis, Umair Haque suggested that, had the West managed a similar performance as East Asia, up to 98% of deaths could have been avoided. And this is not even taking into account the toll that rolling lockdowns take on our societies, economies and political institutions.
So, how did we fail so badly?
Some point to Westerners’ supposed toxic individualism or toxic indifference. Others claim that East Asia’s societies are somehow fundamentally “different” from the West, be it more disciplined, more authoritarian or less interested in data protection.
I have to say, I find neither very convincing. Instead, I’d like to put forward another thesis entirely. I think that the current abysmal failure is due to mainly two things: Ineptitude & Hubris.
The modern Western state and its institutions have failed to keep up – and in many cases, even regressed markedly – in their organizational capacity, which made them inapt to deal with a challenge of such magnitude.
And the still prevailing conviction in the West that we do lead the world in various fields has made our politicians, experts and journalists fatally blind and deaf for best practices from abroad.
Now, in the eye of the pandemic storm, the question is what next?
Alexander: Before we get to what’s next, I want to chime in on your diagnosis of ineptitude and hubris and throw in a bit of short-termism. Even if nobody was expecting a once-in-a-century pandemic to hit, there was still a certain amount of hubris at play in February and March, when Europe and the US successively just didn’t use other countries as examples — even their own immediate neighbors.
But fast forward to this fall, and even if deaths are lower because we know how to treat the disease, somehow governments still seem to be reacting and not anticipating. Reacting is something you do when your thinking is centered on the short-term, and anticipation is something you do when thinking for the long haul. But here, it’s like they forgot their own experience from just 8 months ago!
We can see from the graph of the rise and fall of cases in France that lockdowns are effective, if extremely costly ways of stopping the spread of the virus. (I hate that this has become a tribal political divide. Some want no shutdowns ever, at the obvious expense of health and life, while others are relatively flippant about the enormous emotional, social, and economic costs of shutting things down. We’re going to be dealing with the echoes of the havoc it has wreaked on primary school education for decades). But the French government basically repeated the same problems that it encountered in March; by waiting too long to shut things down, it ended up having to go through a longer, and more costly, shutdown.
So what would anticipating the virus have looked like? It would have meant spending more time explaining to people, when the last lockdown ended, that the way to prevent having to do anything similar, would be to intervene with “mini-shutdowns,” precisely when it appeared unnecessary or too soon to do so. Imagine if France had done a two week shutdown of restaurants and intercity travel right at the end of September, after the return to school had happened. it probably could have nipped the virus in the bud, pushed down both the raw number of cases and the reproduction rate
Everyone knew that summer vacations meant that cases were going to spike (that’s just common sense), and because of the experience in March, it should have been evident to everyone just what exponential growth means, and also that there’s a lag time between the state of the virus and when it shows up in data. The only way I can rationalize this is by entertaining the idea that governments were skeptical they would get acceptance and compliance from people for restrictions until the necessity for them was brutally in their faces — even if anticipating would have been better overall. And that’s a topic about which I have a whoooooole lot more to say, but back to you first.
Benjamin: Yes, you are absolutely right. The failure in the spring was a tragedy. The failure in the fall was gross negligence, to put it lightly. And I must say, I was much more optimistic during the summer that we did learn some of the essential lessons from Taiwan, South Korea and others – particularly when it comes to massive testing, contact tracing and locking down early. But evidently, we didn’t.
By the way, the situation in Austria is almost exactly the same – which is all the more infuriating as Austria had been following the trajectory of Israel and Czechia (both countries of similar size) almost to a point in spring. Then, Israel had a second wave and a second lockdown in summer, and Czechia in October. But we still kept chugging along, making the exact same mistakes, seeing almost the exact same curve and shutting down at the end, but of course very late.
Now the big question is why? Why, as you say, did France not lock down two weeks earlier? Why didn’t Israel or Czechia or Austria or pretty much any other country in Europe? (The Finns and the Irish seem to be two notable exceptions).
Again, I think part of the answer is hubris. I think that many politicians, experts and bureaucrats in Europe genuinely believed they had actually learned some lessons from the spring. After all, there were rules in places, we had some rudimentary contact tracing and much more testing. But what they did not do is study, copy and adapt down to the details those countries and models that did work already.
The first part, for me, is ineptitude – we thought we could mount an effective response to the pandemic and we obviously were not aware of the challenge we were facing. The second part is hubris – thinking you can do it alone and without much outside help or other role models, even though recent experience shows exactly the opposite.
There is one last factor I want to mention before handing back to you: Many keep saying that the constraints of our public debate and democratic politics – as in, you can only take measures once the pain and the urgency becomes apparent – constrain the West in its action. To some degree, that is certainly true. But to me, this also rings a lot like a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The West did attempt to suppress the coronavirus in spring – huge majorities of society were on board with this massive effort. There was no lack of commitment (at least in Europe), nor a lack of resources thrown at the problem. But it did not succeed, ultimately, because it did not have the knowledge, the self-awareness and the critical lookout of what it needs to finish the job.
That, for me, is an institutional problem and one that affects society as a whole.
The West should see and acknowledge this moment as a Sputnik shock – there is ample way to learn, adapt, improve and rejuvenate so many parts of our society and institution. But first comes the awareness that such a renewal is needed.
Alexander: I wish the discussion about ineptitude and hubris could be confined to the level of institutions and politicians. But it’s more multifaceted than that. I don’t think we can conclude anything without talking about social resistance to the types of measures that, if they were articulated well in advance and implemented in anticipation of the virus (before it appeared necessary) would be effective.
Part of me thinks that governments were legitimately worried about their ability to coax acquiescence from the population in general, and specifically to do so before restrictions appeared necessary. And they weren’t entirely wrong. The US is undoubtedly the epicenter of this epidemic of madness, conspiracy theories, and “covidiocy,” but there have been large anti-mask protests in Spain and Germany. And France is now one of the world’s most anti-vax countries!
With the stipulation that many people experience real hardship, even in our collectively wealthy societies, we’ve lost our sense of proposition of what real struggle is. Of what a real threat to freedom is. Of what real sacrifice entails. The German government tackled this in a surprisingly funny way (sorry, you know the reputation of Germans!) with a short video of an old man remembering that his generation was called upon to...stay at home, order pizza, and Netflix and chill. Recently, Obama has been more direct about the same general thing:
“Compare the degree of brutality and venality and corruption and just sheer folly that you see across human history with how things are now,” he said. “It’s not even close.”
We’ve forgotten that. And despite widespread feeling that politics no longer represents people, perhaps some of the problem is that in fact it actually represents people’s immediate whims to the detriment of long-term thinking. Hence our reactionary, rather than anticipatory, governance.
Benjamin: I agree with that. And I think the word you are circling, but not quite naming here, is purpose. The societies of the West have thought since the 1990s that freedom, capitalism and democracy – however each term might be interpreted concretely – were sufficient and an end in itself. And of course they are for societies emerging from parochialism, autocracy, and misery.
Without one – or several – shared narratives, society falls apart little by little. And then, when it is facing an enormous challenge like this pandemic, it is hard to muster all the courage and determination and organizational capacity that is needed to overcome it well.
But I do not want to go all declinist, too. A missing sense of direction was also seen as a major problem in Europe in the early 1900s – and the Great War, at least initially, as a potential valve. What followed was four decades of going to hell and back. Compared to that, some decades of aimless leisure are pure paradise.
But I do firmly believe that common purpose and direction need not come from war. For me, two of the most impressive examples are the Meiji restoration (1866) and the Sputnik shock (1957) – in both historical moments, a society realized how it had fallen behind in some crucial areas and then embarked on a great campaign of change. In the first case, 19th century Japan, in the latter, 20th century America and Europe. It was a change with purpose and direction, to preserve and build, not to destroy.
There is one more glimpse of hope. German company Biontech and U.S. pharma giant Pfizer developed the what seems to be a highly effective vaccine, based on the novel mRNA technology, in record time. Other Western companies such as Moderna, Curevac, Novavax and AstraZeneca are not far behind – and they are far more trusted than their Russian or Chinese counterparts.
My, perhaps naive, hope is that common major achievement such as this, as well as the challenge of climate change and greening our economies will in due time bring a more through change about, and a sense of purpose – also in the “old West.”
Alexander: Clearly, what we’re both itching to discuss is democracy, writ large — so we should just go ahead and do that, explicitly, in a week or so!
I keep going back to when Jimmy Carter (the most underrated living US President) diagnosed, 40 years ago, what he called a “crisis of confidence,” a crisis that he said “strikes at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will,” and that is visible “in the growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives and in the loss of a unity of purpose.” And even more so when he links the crisis to rampant individualism and consumption, saying, “too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns.”
I can’t help but see a direct link with the fact that for so many, the one thing they seem to be willing to fight against in the face of the pandemic is the fact that bars and stores are shut, and they can no longer worship at the Cathedrals of capitalism: the mall.
We are at a turning point in our history. There are two paths to choose. One is a path I’ve warned about tonight, the path that leads to fragmentation and self-interest. Down that road lies a mistaken idea of freedom, the right to grasp for ourselves some advantage over others. That path would be one of constant conflict between narrow interests ending in chaos and immobility. It is a certain route to failure.
All the traditions of our past, all the lessons of our heritage, all the promises of our future point to another path -- the path of common purpose and the restoration of American values. That path leads to true freedom for our nation and ourselves. We can take the first steps down that path as we begin to solve our energy problem.
Energy will be the immediate test of our ability to unite this nation, and it can also be the standard around which we rally. On the battlefield of energy we can win for our nation a new confidence, and we can seize control again of our common destiny.
Maybe you know of a similar speech that’s been given at some point around or since then by a major European leader, but what Carter said applies to both sides of the pond, and it simply sounds prophetic. It’s not just that this crisis of confidence is exactly what we are dealing with in so many way, it’s that even Jimmy Carter’s solution — energy — could still be a solution for the sense of purpose we all seem to lack if you update “energy” to be “climate change.”
If you have thoughts about this topic, feel free to write a comment. We’d love to engage with fellow thinkers, readers and writers! In the meantime, stay tuned for more to come.