“Don’t imagine that these viruses have a deliberate strategy. They don’t come after us. We go to them.” — David Quammen, Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic
Hollywood got it wrong
Hollywood movies about disease outbreaks and pandemics tend to follow a predictable pattern. I refer to the more scientifically viable features — e.g. Outbreak (dir. Petersen, 1995) and Contagion (dir. Soderbergh, 2011) — as opposed to the fanciful zombie apocalypse genre, which will not concern us here. Soderbergh’s Contagion is universally regarded as the best, in the sense of being the most realistic. The director went to great length researching virus outbreak models and interviewing experts at the US Centers for Disease Control, for example. The film’s resulting fictional virus presents a plausible scenario: a recombinant bat-pig virus that originates in southern China and successfully jumps to humans, infecting tens of millions worldwide over a five-month period with a fatality rate of around 30% (comparable to the MERS virus), before a vaccine triumphantly arrives on the scene.
Whether your typical pandemic film ends happily or cataclysmically, the standard formula reduces everything to two variables: 1) the virus’s infectivity (its transmissibility and virulence), and 2) the availability or discovery of a cure. Everything else is posited as constant and fixed. The world’s medical infrastructures are all assumed to be facing the peril on a level playing field, the best scientific minds cooperating feverishly to beat back the scourge (no pun intended). It’s also assumed that the scientists working in the wealthiest and most economically advanced of countries, namely the U.S., are the best-positioned to lead this fight. Contagion is noteworthy, however, in admitting (if in passing) to a few other variables which might impact the proportion of survivors to fatalities, such as people’s socioeconomic status — the wealthy being more likely to receive treatment — and the extent of mutual cooperation among federal, state and municipal governments.
How wrong the paradigm is. On the contrary, the only real constant is the trajectory of the virus’s infectivity; everything else is a variable. What Covid-19 is laying bare throughout the world is that the major, decisive variable determining the proportion of survivors to victims is not the lethality of the virus but the quality and readiness of a country’s medical system. Now almost four months into the pandemic, the countries which have proven themselves to be the best-prepared are mostly neighbors of China: Vietnam (268 cases or a mere 0.00028% of the population as of April 18), Taiwan, South Korea, Laos, Myanmar, Mongolia, and after an initially disastrous start, China itself. In Europe, Italy and Spain have fared the worst, but all European countries are being pummeled and it’s taking time to “flatten the curve” and gain leverage over their exponential infection rates. And then there is the world’s outlier, the United States, its rate of infection totally out of control, with an estimated 20% of the population already infected, its vaunted medical system flopping flat on its face.
As the U.S. public collectively confronts the coronavirus horror, two different reactions are predominating. On the one hand, we have those who grasp that we are in the midst of a crisis of humanity and must seize the moment. As local governments are rushing to acquire medical supplies and organize food donations, people at the grassroots are helping out families, neighbors and communities (physical and online) with whatever they can — money, hands-on help, moral support. On the other, we have those who consider it their duty to assign blame and voice revenge. The vindictive urge is somewhat understandable, given the shock and magnitude of the event, and such an obvious-seeming culprit. But I wish to proceed with an open and investigative rather than a vengeful frame of mind. Let’s start with the timeline of events (drawn from a variety of news reports, most recently an Associated Press article of April 15):
- November 17, 2019: First case of an untreatable pneumonia is reported in a hospital in Wuhan, China. Similar cases accumulate through December, the number infected possibly already by then in the thousands.
- December 31: Chinese Government starts alerting the World Health Organization and medical counterparts in the U.S.
- January 1, 2020: Wuhan doctor Li Wenliang is summoned by police for rumormongering after informing his graduate students of a SARS-like virus circulating the day before; he and other doctors are publicly reprimanded the next day (Dr. Li later dies of the virus).
- January 5: Wuhan hospitals begin to fill with sick people.
- January 12: Chinese Government publishes the virus’s genetic code.
- January 13: First case is discovered outside the mainland, a Chinese woman from Wuhan in Bangkok, Thailand.
- January 14: Chinese Government convenes a teleconference with Hubei provincial authorities, and hospitals nationwide begin screening patients.
- January 15: Nationwide epidemic emergency response is put in place, though without publicization in the national media.
- January 18: Wuhan goes ahead with several large pre-Spring Festival events, including a public potluck banquet to which 40,000 are invited.
- January 20: Chinese Government publicly declares national emergency.
- January 21: Human-to-human transmission of the virus is officially recognized.
- January 23: Wuhan and Hubei Province are sealed off, though only flights and trains at first; people are allowed to escape by car over the next day; by this time some five million have left the city, many unknowingly already infected and spreading the virus around the country and abroad.
- January 25: All Chinese cities are placed in lockdowns of varying severity.
China’s initial response has been lambasted in the Western media as a massive, coordinated coverup. We need to consider, however, what exactly is meant by “coverup.” If we mean a deliberate campaign to deny the existence of an outbreak, the Chinese Government indisputably covered up the SARS epidemic of 2002-3, until forced to come clean after months of denial when cases started multiplying in other countries. But the Covid-19 pandemic points rather to a different situation. The Chinese Government knew of the outbreak at some point in December, and they duly informed the WHO. This gave all countries knowledge of and precious warning to act on this information. The problem was nobody at the time had any idea of the virus’s infectivity and naturally based their predictions on the genetically similar SARS virus. China had successfully stamped out the latter and had no reason to believe they couldn’t stamp out this one; they just wanted a bit more time to ready the medical system before alerting the public. This was a major miscalculation: asymptomatic carriers of the Covid-19 virus turned out to be highly infectious, while only symptomatic carriers of the SARS virus had been. Covid-19 was far stealthier than SARS, and this gave the virus a massive head start. On top of this, there was also the inevitable delay that any country’s bureaucracy would experience before acknowledging with certitude a new outbreak within its borders and moving into action; I wonder how quickly the U.S. Government would have handled the outbreak had the virus originated there.
In any case it was too late, and the virus was taking hold around the world. By January 31, outbreaks were already established in twenty-six countries. It is possible China could have contained or nipped the outbreak in the bud had they acted more promptly and transparently. Yet it’s by no means certain a pandemic could have been avoided (recall that in the film Contagion the epidemic quickly takes hold without any Chinese government coverup). This is because enough infected people may already have left the country, even before scientists realized a new virus was on the loose, to enable it to gain a foothold abroad. In this alternative scenario, we might have seen China stamp out the virus a month or two earlier, while it slowly but surely leaked out elsewhere on a pandemic trajectory, as the world watched in morbid fascination, paralyzed by the same inaction we have since seen. China’s initial success would only have delayed the inexorable.
At first the U.S. public (and government) viewed the affair with curious and complacent detachment, as if watching a riot of animals from the safety of a zoo’s plexiglass barrier, convinced the Chinese disease would remain confined to the filthy country where it had started, where people who eat bats, snakes, and other revolting creatures they had never even heard of only had it coming to them. When the horror show started spreading from the confines of the mass media into real life, and onto American soil, the denial continued on full display, even among public authorities, who claimed to have the handful of domestic cases under control. As people got nervous, they also got angry — at the Chinese. Again, I can appreciate this anger to an extent. The urge to find a scapegoat is a natural reaction to a perceived manmade disaster, one which threatens to upend life around the world and impact ordinary people’s livelihood, all apparently due to the nefarious workings of China’s communist government. Even without the SARS saga there was already widespread perception of the country as a land of deceit, fostered by the shoddy and dangerous products scandals of recent years — melamine in baby formula and exported dogfood, poisonous plastics in children’s toys — and now, apparently, millions of substandard face masks and Covid-19 test kits sent by China to countries in need.
Rumors soon circulated that the virus originated not from wild animals in a wet market but from a virology research center in Wuhan, and worse, that it was actually a biological warfare laboratory run by the Chinese military. Readily believed and widely memed on the internet, the rumor only served to intensify the anger. In turn, some Chinese officials began accusing the U.S. military itself of developing the virus and seeding it in China at a sports event in Wuhan last October by participating American soldiers.
We can dispense with conspiracies of maleficent behavior at the outset; they are without basis or relevance. Neither China nor the U.S., the world’s two largest and highly entwined economies, would have anything to gain from planting a deadly virus on the other’s shores. The world’s military powers do engage in bioterrorism research, but this work is primarily defensive, studying existing viruses in order to develop vaccines or cures. No government in their right mind would resort to an offensive use of a pathogen without some equally drastic provocation, and even then it’s difficult to imagine any plausible scenario outside the logic of mutually assured destruction. At any event, scientists have lately demonstrated that the Covid-19 virus evolved through natural selection and could not have been manufactured in a laboratory (Nature Medicine, Mar. 17, 2020).
A modified conspiracy has been promoted in rightwing publications such as the National Review (“China wants to use the coronavirus to take over the world“), which is that China deliberately unleashed Covid-19 (whether manufactured or naturally derived) in their own country and allowed it to develop into a pandemic because the West and particularly the U.S. were so vulnerable. The communists knew they could quickly stamp out their outbreak with comparatively minimal loss of life while the U.S. would be brought to its knees, subsequently positioning China to advantage in an economically reconfigured world. But though this is now what appears to be playing out, it’s nonetheless a very odd conspiracy, one that attributes a redundant intentionality to a predictable course of events. Achieving world domination by means of spreading a pathogen, though interesting Hollywood movie material, is simply too farfetched to entertain any serious discussion.
We cannot, of course, rule out the possibility that the Covid-19 virus escaped by accident from the Wuhan Institute of Virology or one of several other infectious disease laboratories known to exist in the city. This theory is now gaining credence in the West, primarily on the basis that closely related bat coronaviruses from Yunnan caves are known to have been brought to Wuhan for study. Given the fact that people can spread the virus long before or without ever experiencing symptoms, it is certainly possible an infected or contaminated laboratory worker unknowingly transmitted it to others. If this were the case, however, epidemiologists should be able to trace the transmission chain back to someone who worked at a laboratory; maybe they already have and the Chinese Government is covering it up. Still, the prevailing theory that the virus escaped from a host animal in Wuhan’s wet market originating from bats is plausible enough. New research suggests the Covid-19 virus may have been circulating as early as September, with Guangdong rather than Hubei Province the likely epicenter. The SARS virus is also assumed to have jumped to humans from bats via a host animal in a Guangzhou wet market in Guangdong.
Scientists have been warning for years that animals harbor an unknown number of viruses capable of jumping to humans — “spillover” events — increasingly so as encroaching urbanization, forest clearing, and mechanized agriculture disturb the world’s ecosystems. Novel viruses can arise anywhere. Southern China is a notorious nexus for this phenomenon, with its gastronomical tradition of eating exotic animals, but it’s not the only place where new viruses emerge. The so-called Spanish Flu of 1918 originated in the U.S.; the Machupo virus of 1962 in Bolivia; the Marburg virus of 1967 in Germany; the Ebola virus of 1976 (harbored in bats) in central Africa; the Hanta virus of 1976 in South Korea (and later in South America); the Hendra virus of 1994 (harbored in bats) in Australia; Avian influenza virus of 1997 in Hong Kong (various bird flu strains have since been found in other countries including the U.S); the Nipah virus of 1998 in Malaysia; the SARS virus of 2002 in Guangdong Province, China; the Swine flu virus of 2009 in Mexico; MERS or “camel flu” of 2012 in Saudi Arabia, and so forth. Have a look at David Quammen’s book Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic (W. W. Norton & Co., 2012), which contains everything you need to know about how and why viruses jump from animals to humans. The film Contagion also shows how this can happen. As for the Yunnan bat caves, see Quammen’s “We made the coronavirus epidemic” (New York Times, Jan. 28, 2020) and his follow-up piece “Why weren’t we ready for the coronavirus?” (The New Yorker, May 4, 2020).
Until we have evidence to the contrary, the simplest explanation is sufficient; no other is needed. You don’t want to go down that road of blaming China or calling for punitive action or reparations (there have been veiled threats by U.S. politicians and at least one lawsuit against the Chinese Government), if the next pandemic emerges in your own country.
Disbelief and denial
Over the month of February, only weeks after the country went under lockdown, China appeared to get its outbreak under control. This was perhaps unfortunate for the rest of the world, as it led to complacency: if that overpopulated Third World country can succeed in bringing the virus to heel, we’ll easily be able to do the same with our superior medical systems. The first U.S. case, in Washington State, was confirmed on January 20. At this point knowledgeable people at the Centers for Disease Control knew an epidemic was virtually inevitable (they had warned Americans against travelling to China as early as January 6). The handful of America’s cases seemed to stay steady over the subsequent weeks, which only served to reinforce the complacency. A new influx of coronavirus patients arrived from infected cruise ships, but they were safely whisked away to hospitals. By late February, health experts already had enough evidence the virus was spreading widely in the U.S. In early March appeared, in Washington State and California, the first evidence of community transmission in people with no known contact with those previously infected. This meant that likely thousands were already infected, and the affected states should have gone under China-style lockdown at once. What proceeded was worse than a government coverup: lassitude and inaction. Recent reports now confirm that by early February thousands of Americans were silently spreading the virus throughout the country and already dying of it.
The anger at China was compounded by disbelief as China got its numbers of infected down to zero and kept it there. Many Americans simply could not believe the propaganda coming out of China was true; the virus was surely continuing to rage across China and the claims to the contrary were assumed to be lies. As late as the third week of March, when the numbers of infected were beginning to explode in the U.S., I saw Americans on Facebook and Twitter commenting how lucky they were not to be living in China. Even educated, politically aware people I’m acquainted with back home regarded the figures coming out of China with deep suspicion. It’s a classic textbook instance of denial: the initial reaction to a disturbing or overwhelming event which the mind at first refuses to process, until it’s subsequently forced to. As well as wish-fulfilment and projection: attributing to others what you are unable to accept at home; in this case the collective desire among Americans to see the pandemic continuing to rage on the other side of the world, where it belonged. An example of denial is Trump’s claim (on April 18), unsubstantiated by any evidence, that China’s stated 4,632 Covid-19 death total is false and must surely exceed the U.S.’s 36,000 deaths.
I live and work in China and have been in Beijing the entire time. When the city locked down on January 25, it was scary at first since nobody knew how widespread the virus was. It wasn’t a total, Wuhan-style quarantine. The subway remained open. We could come and go freely from our apartment complexes, though some residential compounds had stricter rules in place and only allowed people out once every day or two for essential shopping. Almost all shops and restaurants were shuttered (pharmacies, convenience stores and some supermarkets excepted). Some McDonalds and KFCs were still operating for takeout only; a handful of cafés and restaurant pubs popular with foreigners in the business district remained open. A Sina news agency app showed the number of known infected in each district of Beijing, updated daily. By early February, the city’s total surpassed 300 and hovered close to 400 over the next several weeks, levelling out as the newly infected gradually diminished to zero by February 25, exactly one month later. While the figures in Wuhan and Hubei Province continued to surge up toward 70,000, the rest of the country showed similar downward trends with Beijing (Zhejiang Province had a bit more trouble but finally got their outbreak under control). If you find it all a bit suspicious, the truth is that the Chinese Government acted just quickly and decisively enough in sealing off Hubei Province to keep things from getting out of hand in the rest of the country. The reason some cafés and restaurants could stay open and most of us allowed to come and go freely is that the virus had been under control in Beijing and other cities from the outset.
Perhaps you imagine those of us inside the Great Firewall have all been duped by the Orwellian propaganda apparatus and the virus continues to rage across Chinese cities, and we’re blissfully unaware as the dead are secretly dispatched right in our midst in the late hours of the night. You’re welcome to entertain any fantasy you wish. If a giant coverup really were in place, however, it could not be maintained for long. There would be unmistakable signs and evidence of the virus all around. I have WeChat (the Chinese WhatsApp) contacts with several hundred Chinese and foreign friends and colleagues all over Beijing. Any rumors of infected people would course through the grapevine with lightening speed and we would hear of it. There would be ambulances rushing about. A single infected case would put an entire residential building or even the whole compound under stringent lockdown. Restaurants that had been open would be shuttered. There are, of course, nonsymptomatic carriers who spread the virus without ever realizing they’re infected, and they are a real matter of concern, but the city’s lockdown has been in place for over two months; the vectors of transmission from such carriers would have been spotted and dealt with weeks ago. There is also nervousness about people who went back to their hometown for the Spring Festival and who have already begun returning to Beijing and possibly bringing the virus with them, but this too is unlikely, as everyone in China has been under lockdown the same extent of time. I don’t discount the possibility outbreaks may reoccur once Chinese cities let their guard down, but for now the country has everything under control. The problem, on the contrary, is that China is now so fixated on keeping the virus out that it may be flirting with a Mao-style closing off of the country to all international travel indefinitely.
Despite China’s bungled start, it turned out to be among the best prepared. Its memory of SARS was a blueprint of what to do. As the infected were multiplying in Hubei, soldiers and medical personnel in the Chinese army were rushed to the province; hospital beds were initially overwhelmed, but repurposed amphitheaters and convention halls, and two hospitals built from scratch in ten days with a total capacity of 2,500 beds, soon absorbed the overflow of patients. They were able to accomplish all this with reasonable speed because they had experience doing it (a similar prefabricated hospital was erected in Beijing during the SARS epidemic).
South Korea is another outstanding example of a country that was ready to take on the coronavirus. They were in some respects even better prepared than China, with twelve hospital beds per 1,000 people at the ready, versus China’s 4.3 and the U.S.’s 2.8. They have to be, facing a hostile, nuclear-armed enemy only thirty-five miles from their capital. Seoul is a large metropolis and the South Korean Government has had to plan for decades for any contingency, including nuclear and chemical warfare attacks. They got off to a rocky start when superspreaders from a Christian sect were allowed to fan the virus across the city of Daegu after several mass religious events, and they paid for it with 10,000 infected. But they quickly got things under control and flattened the curve, many weeks before Italy has been able to, whose epidemic started around the same time.
Disaster preparedness comes down to more than marshalling factories to build ventilator machines and face masks quickly, but to the preexisting and ready availability of all the necessary medical resources so that they don’t have to be rush-made. The U.S medical system is reputed to have the finest institutions and physicians in the world (or at least some of the finest). But the best doctors and nurses are of no help if they themselves are sick and dying on the few ventilators available because of inadequate medical supplies, which is exactly what is presently unfolding in ill-prepared American hospitals. All countries are facing an initial deluge of patients, overwhelming the capacity of their hospital systems. Covid-19 is a report card revealing respective governments’ medical preparedness, and the grades received are mostly low. The U.S. medical infrastructure is a special case, however, flunking badly, outright delinquent, woefully worse prepared than any other country in the developed world.
We don’t yet have a clear picture of the fatality rate in the U.S. (which currently stands at 5.3% as of April 18), as the epidemic is still in the early stages and many of the critically ill have not passed away. There are in fact two fatality rates: those under optimal medical circumstances and those not. South Korea was able to offer almost all of the afflicted immediate, first-class medical care, with adequate hospital beds and ventilators, and has thus kept the fatality rate to about 2%, as close to the ideal minimum as currently seems possible. Germany has also been able to keep its fatality rate to under 3%, with its excellent medical system. China’s fatality rate is 5.6% (it skewed higher due to the initial shortage of hospital care in Hubei). Italy’s fatality rate is the world’s highest, currently a frightening 13%, though this is partly because the Lombardy region where it first hit has an elderly demographic. We must be skeptical of these figures for the time being, with too many unknown factors, which time will eventually clarify; there are reports some countries may even be experiencing different strains of the virus, of different virulence. But at the moment it seems that anything over 2% reflects the degree of a country’s lack of medical preparedness.
It’s the duty of a nation’s leadership to protect the public. There are limits to what even the best-prepared government can do in the face of sudden disasters, whether natural (earthquakes, tsunamis) or manmade (invasions, economic collapse). When it comes to pandemics, we are at some advantage in that they don’t come crashing down all at once but build up slowly at first, giving us precious weeks or even months (if they start from afar) to track their course, monitor their infectivity and take preemptive action. The key thing to understand is it’s not just how quickly governments respond to an outbreak; it’s how well prepared they are before an outbreak occurs. Planning for pandemics is a matter national security, on the same level of importance as terrorist attacks and nuclear war. Nothing could be foolhardier than doing nothing and then blaming the country where it started, as a way of deflecting responsibility from one’s own failed preparedness. The way cities, towns and villages in Medieval Europe learned about the bubonic plague — the fourteenth-century Black Death — was when rumor came round that a neighboring town had been stricken. By that time it was too late; the bacterium was already swirling through their own town. We have the advantage of instant global communication via the mass media and the internet, a helpful weapon, one which the U.S. Government declined to use.
The U.S. Government knew of the coronavirus outbreak at least as early as December 31, when the Chinese Government informed the WHO, but probably earlier than that, as the U.S. CDC and intelligence agencies such as the NSA actively track disease outbreaks at the first sign of one as a vital matter of national security. The confounding question is why the U.S. Government did nothing the whole time, and continues to do virtually nothing, passing the burden onto state governments. With the number of infected at 710,021 (as of April 18), by far the highest in the world and with the world’s steepest trajectory, governors are begging the White House for aid and not receiving it or are being outright refused, as was Michigan’s Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, for instance, merely because Trump doesn’t like her. I suggest the answer to this question has to do with the assumption held by all too many Americans that their country is somehow exceptional and immune to what happens in the rest of the world.
Pandemics and other disasters bring out the best and the worst of society. So far, the ugliest reactions and incidents are being witnessed in the United States. I don’t merely refer to the dangerous clown in the White House, or to idiotic televangelists claiming that the virus is God’s revenge on LGBT people, or to reports that white supremacists are planning to (or may already be) employing aerosol weapons to disperse the virus in order to sow chaos and ultimately bring down the government. Among ordinary people too we are seeing the most barbaric behavior: the Caucasian father who spat in the face of the pharmacist’s aid who delivered medicine to his home because he was of Chinese ethnicity, the landlady who evicted a nurse living in her building for supposedly being a contagious threat, people spitting on food in supermarkets or attacking Asians on the street. Atrocious acts such as these lead one to worry that the average American’s moral character may really be of lower quality than people elsewhere. People are panic-buying guns, supposedly to protect themselves, though some may feel compelled to use them when their money runs out and local governments are unable to supply food.
Progressives would not say that Americans are necessarily inherently meaner (or intellectually challenged). Rather, they are victimized by the world’s most brutally refined form of capitalism, which they act out in turn in their personal lives in sublimated frustration and aggression. The U.S. medical system offers the starkest example of American-style institutionalized violence — the violence built into society as a permanent feature because everyone takes it for granted. In the arena of public health, it’s an ideology that promotes and sustains cultural assumptions such as that only successful people deserve health insurance and proper medical care; if you become ill, you only have yourself to blame for whatever lifestyle failure brought it on. And if enough people believe that they don’t deserve it, the financial violence of unaffordable care, the physical violence of lack of care, and the psychological violence of both are given free rein to wreak havoc. Enough people have indeed been taken in by this indoctrination — including the very people who most need governmental healthcare support — as to vote for a presidential candidate who promised to eliminate the only serious effort the country has seen to provide health insurance for everyone, President Obama’s Affordable Care Act of 2010.
The most astonishing thing about the U.S. medical system to people outside of it — the rest of the world — is the mind-boggling cost of treatment. Whereas the governments of almost every country (including China) are fully covering their coronavirus patients’ medical expenses, American hospitals, even in this national emergency, are charging patients at the usual rates, including testing for the virus. One Boston hospital billed a woman $35,000 for a couple ER visits for her coronavirus symptoms, only to be sent home with no more care. We will soon see news reports of the astronomical costs of ICU stays; the survivors may find the aftermath more depressing than being on a ventilator when they see their hospital bill. The lucky 40% of the population currently covered by insurance will be spared some of this financial burden, but many will still have to pay out thousands of dollars in deductibles and copays.
The brunt of the U.S. medical system’s violence is directed at the very people who have devoted their career to medical care: doctors, nurses and hospital staff. The wealthiest country in the world can’t afford to equip and safeguard its hospitals for major emergencies and disasters. Despite several months’ advance knowledge of the approaching pandemic, doctors and nurses are experiencing shortages of the most basic protective wear — face masks and hazmat suits, not to mention testing kits, medicines, beds and ventilators. This is turning hospitals into hazard zones. People who fear they may be infected must choose between riding it out at home and the certainty of becoming infected (and possibly bankrupt) if they set foot in a hospital.
The reason U.S. hospitals are being hit so hard by Covid-19 is precisely the illusion that they are the best. The true culprit, working hand in hand with capitalist malfeasance, is the belief so many have in American exceptionalism: the ethnocentric, solipsistic assumption that the USA is set apart from and above other countries, its sense of superiority, enshrined in the ridiculous old notion of “manifest destiny,” and given xenophobic life in Trump’s tired and embarrassing “America First” cliché. The criminal inaction of the U.S. Government — the absence of a coherent national response geared to protecting the public in a pandemic — follows directly from this delusion of specialness, and its corollary, the sneering presumption there is nothing we could possibly learn from any other country. I don’t entirely blame Trump for this. He’s been able to unleash his verbal diarrhea only because so many have long internalized the primitive “We’re Number One and fuck the rest of the world!” mindset. The rest of the world is now watching the USA fuck itself.
A silver lining
There is hope for two positive outcomes of the Covid-19 pandemic. First, the comprehensive failure of both the U.S. Government and its medical institutions to respond to the national emergency will force a crisis of confidence among the public, altering the national discourse toward articulating a new set of priorities more in line with the rest of the civilized world; or at least a significant shift in that direction: one of greater funding of healthcare and less of the military and the capitalist elite, and a more humble understanding of the nation’s place in the world. At the grassroots, the blind faith that so many place in rightwing religious conservatism will be disturbed and upset, opening people’s eyes and transforming individuals’ awareness toward a more catholic (with a small “c”), humane apprehension of their society. I doubt you’ll see much change in the older generations who stubbornly cling to their spiritual pacifiers, but they will ultimately die off and be replaced by a more informed younger generation.
Second, the Covid-19 virus, though devastating, must be recognized in the larger scheme of things as a relatively benign virus. A 2% fatality rate (under ideal medical circumstances) is low by the standards of some other viruses. It could have been much worse. In other words, it’s not yet the Big One, say something on the scale of avian influenza with its 60% fatality rate (among people who have contracted it from birds), if it were to succeed in jumping to humans. If the world’s viruses had collective consciousness and could speak, they might be saying, “We know you’re not ready to deal with us. To play fair, we’ll toss you a softball for starters so you can familiarize yourselves with the game and be better prepared when we start throwing hardballs at you.” I expect that governments the world over will be much more vigilant about novel viruses after this dress rehearsal.
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