The China Derangement Syndrome
Did you know that “America is under attack—not just by an invisible virus, but by the Chinese”? Did you know that, even amid this attack, “Joe Biden defends China and parrots Communist party propaganda”? If not, maybe you should get on the mailing list for news updates from the Trump-Pence campaign.
Team Trump has shifted into full-on blame-China-first mode. In a span of two weeks, we’ve gone from Trump using the term “coronavirus” to Mike Pompeo test-marketing the term “Wuhan virus” to Trump abandoning all pretenses of subtlety and going with “Chinese virus.”
There’s no denying that China deserves lots of blame. Its failure to adequately regulate Wuhan’s “wet markets”—where wild animals are sold for consumption—seems to be what inflicted this epic problem on the world.
Then again, in 2008 America’s failure to adequately regulate its financial markets inflicted an epic problem on the world. That’s life amid globalization: screwups in one nation can rapidly infect other nations. Sometimes you’re the screwer, and sometimes you’re the screwee.
To put this in more formal language: in a globalized world, nations are locked into a non-zero-sum relationship; there can be lose-lose outcomes or win-win outcomes, depending on how they play their games. This pandemic has been lose-lose, but in the fight against it there will be win-win moments—not just in the sense that victories over the virus in any nation make other nations safer, but in the sense that successful tactics and treatments discovered by one nation will spread to other nations. For better and for worse, we’re all in this together.
One of the main things this newsletter is about (hence the name!) is how the world’s various non-zero-sum games can be played more wisely. Sometimes that mission means championing the kind of global governance that facilitates cooperation among nations. So, for example, I’d be against cutting US funding to the World Health Organization. And I’d certainly be against trotting out the idea of a 50 percent cut in that funding at exactly the time that a pandemic is enveloping the world—which, remarkably, the Trump administration actually did.
But cheering for good global governance isn’t enough. If you’re serious about fostering it, you have to foster a political climate conducive to it, which means fighting the xenophobia and crude nationalism that so often poison that climate.
You may think my next sentence is going to be: “And that means fighting Trump and Trumpism.” Wrong!
Killing COVID-19 without killing the economy
Our situation would seem to be this: the price of fighting COVID-19—the price of the massive social distancing the U.S. and other countries are now deploying against it—is almost certainly a recession and possibly a global depression. And global depressions have, among other downsides, something in common with COVID-19: they kill people.
In the New York Times, David L. Katz, a physician, argues that there’s a way out of this dilemma—a way to avert economic collapse without paying a massive toll in death and suffering.
The basic idea is to apply social distancing more selectively but more intensively: identify the most vulnerable (older people, plus younger people with such conditions as diabetes), and strengthen the rules that protect them from infection, while relaxing the rules for the less vulnerable, and thus allowing them to participate in the economy.
In this scenario, the contagion would continue, but it would continue within corridors that would keep the death rate low—that is, corridors occupied by relatively young and healthy people. The typical experience of people infected would range from feeling no symptoms at all to having something like a bad case of the flu. And after infection they would presumably be immune, at least for a while. Eventually America would achieve “herd immunity”: a high enough percentage of the population would be immune so that the virus would quit spreading.
Most people, including me, find “herd immunity” scenarios a bit chilling, as they entail unflinching resignation to a certain level of death, however low, within a certain part of the population. And that just seems less humane than trying to save everyone, even if that effort is doomed to fall well short of its goal. But before dismissing Katz’s idea, you should read his op-ed, because he notes downsides of the current approach (including lethal ones) that go beyond flirting with economic apocalypse.
Red virus, blue virus
On March 11—back before President Trump had declared a national emergency and sent various other signals that he was now taking COVID-19 seriously—the Economist posted some numbers showing that Democrats were more worried about the virus than Republicans and more likely to have taken precautions against it. The headline said, “In America, even pandemics are political.”
There’s certainly some truth to that. Once Trump, out of the gate, minimized the dangers posed by the virus, some of his supporters followed their leader—as supporters are especially inclined to do in polarized times. And their attachment to his position was probably strengthened by the derisive dismissal of it coming from his detractors. Psychology of Tribalism 101.
But to fully appreciate the coronavirus’s potential to deepen American polarization, you need to see how thoroughly it can be woven into the narrative that got Trump elected. And to see that, you need to understand another reason Trump supporters didn’t get as freaked out by the virus as Trump detractors: It wasn’t as much of a threat to them.
The virus was at first a blue-state problem: California, Washington State, New York, and Massachusetts had the biggest spots on the coronavirus map. And as the disease spread, it hit the bluer parts of the red states—the big cities. (As various analysts have noted, America’s great divide isn’t so much blue state versus red state—after all, big chunks of blue states are red, and vice versa—as high-population-density areas versus lower-density areas.)
Of course, this is changing. The virus is now in all states, and it’s starting to move from cities to towns. So maybe people on both sides of America’s political divide will more and more be seeing things the same way?
In the sense of taking the epidemic seriously, yes. There’s been an uptick in Republicans’ interest in and concern about the coronavirus as it has spread and as Trump has gone from being dismissive of it to being conspicuously in command of the war against it. But there’s reason to worry that this convergence of perspectives won’t bring broader harmony between red and blue.
For one thing, if you’re in a red state or a red town, and you see the virus headed your way, where is it headed from? From blue states and blue cities! Moreover: How did it get to those blue states and blue cities? From abroad.
New York Times tech writer Kevin Roose sees upside in the physical isolation the coronavirus has imposed on us. The virus “is forcing us to use the internet as it was always meant to be used—to connect with one another, share information and resources, and come up with collective solutions to urgent problems. It’s the healthy, humane version of digital culture we usually see only in schmaltzy TV commercials, where everyone is constantly using a smartphone to visit far-flung grandparents and read bedtime stories to kids.”
Pollution dropped markedly in China and Italy as a result of coronavirus-induced social distancing. On the environmental blog G-Feed, Marshall Burke calculates that the lives saved in China via reduced pollution exceeded the lives lost to the virus. Whether or not that’s true, the satellite images accompanying the blog post are testament to how much the air seems to have cleared up in China. Satellite shots of northern Italy before and during its lockdown paint the same picture. Of course, these reductions in pollution were part of an economic slowdown that you wouldn’t want to sustain forever. Still, the pandemic will no doubt heighten our appreciation of how many things we can do remotely, via information technology, without generating as many pollutants as we’re accustomed to generating. These things include not just telecommuting but, for example:
Quartz reports that the pandemic has brought a boom in telehealth, as doctors—in part to shield themselves from infection—become more amenable to virtual office visits.
In the New York Times, John Schwartz assesses the extent to which some of the tools of social distancing—telecommuting, virtual conferences, and the like—could slow the rate of climate change. The question is more complicated than you might guess. If, for example, working remotely means spending the day in a house that would otherwise be uninhabited, the fuel consumed to heat or cool the house has to be weighed against the fuel saved by not commuting (which itself varies greatly depending on whether you drive to work or take public transportation).
Tricycle is offering free online meditation sessions “to help ease anxiety amid our social-distancing efforts.” And Dan Harris’s Ten Percent Happier website offers a free “coronavirus sanity guide.”