Five myths of COVID

EDIT as of June 20: Though much of the reasoning in the below post has been proven wrong, especially Russia/Hungary/Poland having the best European responses to coronavirus (the actual best responses in Europe were in Greece, Finland, the Baltics, former Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia -the best response in Western Europe was Ireland’s), each of the five points clearly and firmly stands. I will, however, leave the post up for posterity without emendation. Pakistan, Nepal, and Afghanistan performed terribly (though Burma, Laos, and Cambodia did very well). The general pattern of coronavirus cases as of June 17 is here. Once again, there no evidence at all populism solves anything. The virus has been controlled by democracies (New Zealand, Australia, Korea, Mongolia, Taiwan, Uruguay, Paraguay, Tunisia, the Baltics, Ireland, Czechoslovakia, former Yugoslavia, Greece, Lebanon, Georgia), traditional monarchies (Morocco, Jordan, Brunei), hybrid regimes (Malaysia, Thailand, Burma, Uganda, Cambodia), and Communist regimes (Cuba, Laos, China, Vietnam). Not a single “populist” government handled the crisis well, other than perhaps Serbia and Hungary, both of the governments of which are less “populist” and more “ethnonationalist”. “The exception that proves the rule” was much larger than I originally thought.

These are the five most pernicious myths I have seen regarding the COVID crisis from sources I regularly read. All are contradicted plainly by the facts.

1. Libertarians are at fault

The central problem in containing the epidemic in America in its early stage was a lack of testing. This lack of testing was not a natural process. It was a product of CDC incompetence and FDA overreach. America has many great healthcare companies, who would have loved to step up to the plate in the fight against COVID (as the great South Korean companies did in South Korea). They were prevented from doing so by the FDA delaying approval and the CDC deciding it would do all COVID testing for the United States, delaying the mass production of its own test, and creating testing criteria that guaranteed the virus would, unlike in Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Australia, New Zealand, the United Arab Emirates, or Russia, spread entirely undetected. The failure to contain the epidemic in its early stages in America was not primarily a failure of libertarianism or capitalism. It was a failure of socialism. Further deregulation- on state licensing, on remote diagnosis, etc. will be the most lasting consequence of the coronavirus pandemic in the United States. Those claiming current problems with the FDA and CDC are products of underfunding must explain how greater funding for these agencies would have fixed anything of importance in relation to this crisis. Taiwan, Singapore, Australia, Russia, the United Arab Emirates, and Korea all have smaller governments as a percentage of GDP than the United States, Spain and Italy both have larger.

The current shortages of personal protective equipment in the West are primarily a product of price gouging laws and export restrictions (and import taxes) by overzealously nationalist governments, not to mention FDA regulations on mask sterilization, not primarily failures of libertarianism or offshoring. If these restrictions did not exist and never had a chance to exist, then having redundant productive capacity for medical equipment around the world would be entirely improper. The expansion of capitalism around the world (“offshoring”) has dramatically increased the world’s capability to supply needed personal protective equipment. It is not a liability for the world in countering the pandemic, but perhaps its greatest asset.

2. Chinese lies are at fault

Of all myths of COVID, this is perhaps the least true and most pernicious. The Russian government, one of the friendliest neighbors of China, did not trust its lies one bit and unilaterally shut down travel from China even before Russia recorded its first cases. South Korea, the single friendliest country to China and Russia in the developed world, had one of the most competent responses in the world with the mildest travel bans. The United Arab Emirates, a tireless champion of China’s policies towards its Uyghur minority, had one of the best responses to the pandemic in the world and shut down travel to all China except Beijing on February 3. Italy, also friendly with China by Western standards, was one of the first countries to shut down travel with it. The less relevant countries with strong China ties- Pakistan, Nepal, Afghanistan, etc.- all got a huge dose of coronavirus fears -and, just as importantly, a sense of identification with the struggles of China- from the messaging spread by their respective Chinese ambassadors. From this evidence, it seems much more that lack of listening to Chinese truths -and, just as importantly, lack of empathy with China was the central disease of the West. Chinese messaging primarily hurt China, mostly prior to mid-January. It had either no (Russia, Italy, the UAE) or a beneficial (South Asia) impact on China’s closest partners. The countries that had the worst responses were precisely those that have a tendency to least listen to “Chinese lies” and to least empathize with Chinese concerns.

3. Populism could have helped things

One of the best responses to the pandemic came from South Korean President Moon Jae-In. He might be considered a “populist” in a loose sense, but is closer to the opposite of the current vision of the “populist” in the Western media. Relatively China-friendly, left-wing, liberal, and skeptical of restrictions on migration, Moon’s government, unlike American authorities of both and of no parties, recognized the inevitability of the spread of the epidemic into the country and prepared for it without greatly disrupting the economy at any point by massively expanding testing and the tracing of infected. The people most responsible for the spread of the pandemic in Korea turned out to be not Chinese, but local cult members. For this, Moon was berated by the Western media, even as his approach proved to be among the most successful in the world.

Some have suggested the crisis represents the failure of parts of the West to maintain its domestic manufacturing. Say what you will, but globalization expands world production; it does not contract it. By allowing one country to manufacture medical supplies when another is down, it makes the world more resilient to disasters, not less. The only reason one would want to make products at home at higher cost than elsewhere is if countries elsewhere refuse to abide by the norms of globalization and resort to beggar-thy-neighbor policies.

Immigration restriction, another core element of populism, is at best tangentially relevant to the current crisis. While it’s certain the early spread of COVID was primarily due to Chinese immigrant communities, a future pandemic may originate anywhere on the globe. The benefits of normal global trade and travel substantially outweigh potential vulnerability to once-in-a-decade pandemics, especially to immigrants themselves.

There is only one grain of truth in the meme that populism could have alleviated the spread of the pandemic. It is this: the three most demonized countries of Europe in the Western press -Russia, Hungary, and Poland- had by far the best responses to the pandemic in Europe. But the sort of populism practiced in powerful countries aligned with imperialism, as exemplified by Trump, Johnson, and Bolsonaro, could never have countered the pandemic. Fundamentally, resistance to countering the illness relies on a sort of cultural chauvinism -as exemplified by Western advice against mask purchasing, rabid Sinophobia, and resistance to disruption in normal Western ways of life that are part and parcel of the drug of exceptionalism peddled by the merchants of imperialism in powerful countries. To these merchants of exceptionalism, the successful response of the East Asian and Arab countries to the virus did not provide inspiration for dealing with the virus in their own countries, but, rather, only confirmed the supremacy of ways of life introduced by Western imperialists- and, therefore, the mode of life existing within the core of the imperialist countries- over Chinese Communism. In contrast, the central ideology of the governments of Europe (once again, Russia, Hungary, Poland) that had the best responses to the pandemic was substantially closer to resistance against Western cultural overreach than the proud championing of Western cultural chauvinism universal among Western powerful-country “populists”.

Taiwan is the exception that proves the rule- the island is suffering a severe brain drain to the mainland, and the current government’s identity is so strongly embedded in literal Sinophobia -not hatred of Communist China, but actual, near-psychotic fear of it that any new strange illness coming out of the mainland rapidly becomes a source of concern at every level of government. Something similar can be said for Australia.

4. The media is particularly blameworthy

By polls, the media is one of the least trusted institutions on the pandemic. Though the Western media certainly had its failures, it is not the job of the media to respond to pandemics. It is the job of the media to report on them. The Wuhan pandemic was covered in fairly decent quantity in most mainstream Western sources, as was the spread of the virus to Korea, Iran, Italy, etc. Though many news sources did try to downplay the pandemic, this downplaying was assuming a competent response by the authorities actually responsible. It is not the job of the news media to replace the leaders in power, and it would have been quite difficult for anyone in January to have guessed how utterly stupid the authorities in the Western countries truly were. It is these authorities, not the media, who primarily failed in responding to the COVID pandemic. News media speculation about the stupidity of the people in power in the developed West would almost certainly have been just that, speculation, not reporting. The CDC, the FDA, the Surgeon General, the President of the United States, the Secretary of Commerce, state governors, the American public, etc., and their counterparts in Western Europe are all far more at fault than news sources giving the public information about the pandemic’s spread. In fact, many reporters did a fantastic job of covering how China contained its own crisis. Had the media been in charge of containing the pandemic, despite its flaws, I think the Western response would have been substantially superior to that in real life.

5. The danger of fear and misinformation

This is more a myth of the past, but still retains a surprising amount of currency among those more prone to trust authority. As anyone today understands, fear of fear turned out to be a substantially more damaging emotion than actual fear of the virus. The powerful today also tend to substantially underestimate how much more centralized the online media ecosystem is today than it was a decade or a decade and a half ago. There was (is) substantial concern from people in power about “misinformation” during the pandemic. In fact, misinformation from unofficial sources had almost no harmful impact on the public at all. Actual disinformation generally (and all influential disinformation) came from the people up top -the Surgeon General, the CDC, the WHO, Boris Johnson with his “herd immunity” strategy, the President of the United States, state governments, health officials, etc. It is worth remembering that the country that did most to counter “fear” and “disinformation” within its own borders was… China in December-early January. If there is anything this pandemic shows, it is the danger of trusting the people in power and of ignoring intelligent and powerless people on Internet.