Several months ago I was twittering back and forth with Matt Watson, one of John Hopkins’ biosecurity gurus. Watson was trying to convince me to sign up for their newsletter; I, a man irrationally disturbed by poisons, pandemics, and all other means of non-kinetic mass death, demurred. I knew if I read too much about bugs and bacteria I would soon be too paranoid to step outside my home ever again. Better to escape another decade unscathed by study of epidemiology.
I did not get a decade. Epidemics, it seems, follow the same logic as that (faux) Trotsky quote on war: you may not be interested in viruses, but viruses are interested in you!
I am not going to play the part of the epidemiologist here and lecture you on R0 or other concepts I have learned of only over the last two weeks. But there are a few points I want to raise regarding the political and practical implications of the growing crisis:
1. There is a lot of commentary out there blaming various parts of the Chinese governing system for the epidemic. Some place personal blame on Chairman Xi, others on the provincial party standing committee of Hubei, or on the mayor of Wuhan. Frankly, we still do not have enough information to make that call. We likely will not have a detailed picture of who knew what when, and who directed whom to do what, for several months still. Those who try to convince you otherwise are rumor-mongering. These rumors are inevitable (more on that in a minute), but that does not mean you should pay them any attention.
I’m also unconvinced that the Communist system itself deserves special blame for the epidemic. The truth is that the cycle of denial, political games, and over-reaction that has marked this virus’ spread fit a historical pattern that democracies have often fallen victim to (consider the events surrounding San Fransisco’s brush with the bubonic plague in 1900). Down playing news of a novel disease only to pivot to an extreme, coercive response when public panic begins is common. This does not excuse the Communist officials responsible for putting “stability management” ahead of disease management. Hundreds are dead. These men are responsible for these deaths. But human pride, not something unique to Communist politics, drove those decisions.
2. The same thing cannot be said for the unrelenting wave of rumors sweeping across China at the moment. This is very much a product of the Chinese Communist system.
The Chinese people have an interesting relationship with the Party propaganda and censorship system. Chinese are well aware that the government lies to them. What they often have difficulty discerning is what it decides to lie about. Sometimes it does not lie. Other times it simply leaves the truth unsaid. You will occasionally meet Chinese who have never heard of the June 4th (Tienanmen) Massacre; those people have no way to know that its absence from their history books is the lie. Similarly, I have met many Chinese who were astounded to learn that China’s claims in the South China Sea are for the most part a wholesale invention of Chinese propagandists, rejected as the product of bare power politics by even neutrals not involved in the dispute. They knew they were being lied to somewhere. It never occurred to them that this was one of the things the system would lie about.
This is not how the virus story has played out. The Chinese people already know that illness stalks the land. In moments of crises like these there is usually a space—sometimes it is a few days, sometimes two or three weeks—where the Party leadership is itself gathering information and is uncertain about the ‘line’ to present to the public. In such circumstances there is a fair amount of space for Chinese media (especially those from outside the jurisdiction of the crisis area authorities) to report unfettered, and for users on social media to say more or less what they will. Caixin’s excellent reporting on the situation in Wuhan over the last two weeks came in just that window. That window is now closing. The Party has figured out how it wants to handle the crisis—and just as importantly for this discussion, how they want the handling to be reported.
The trouble is that the Chinese people now know the game that is being played. They know that the system lies to them. They know that as this crisis unfolds there will be ample incentive to lie. Whether the Party is actually lying to them is now quite besides the point. They cannot trust official sources, and they will not trust them, no matter how truthful they may be. That trust eroded a long time ago. The paranoia and rumor-mongering that has gripped Chinese society is a consequence of this broken trust. At most times and with most issues this does not matter. When people think their lives may be on the line that changes.
3. It is common for America’s nascent socialist left to stack up the costs of aircraft carriers and striker-bombers and display how many bridges or hospitals or homeless shelters could be bought with that same money. The trick is an old one. It was a Republican president who declared that “every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.”
China now faces a crisis of doctors not clothed and patients untreated. Chinese media has trumpeted the construction of six-day hospitals in Wuhan (and even authorities there admit they will not be enough), but the true crisis is not in Wuhan. The real crisis zone is in the countryside that surrounds it. There doctors are few and their provisions fewer. Images of these places sweep the Chinese internet. Left unstated in these viral posts is a question that now bothers many millions: how did we let things get so bad?
One answer to this question goes like this: things never should have been this bad. China has been blessed with three decades of unmatched plenty. Our own propagandists call the course of these decades an “economic miracle.” But what have we done with this miracle? How have we spent the fruits of prosperity? On re-education camps, surveillance systems, belt-and-roads, hypersonic missiles, aircraft carriers, and grand militarized island forts built of sand! The amount of money China has spent on internal surveillance and detentions tripled over the last decade. How many hospitals could that have built?
This narrative is unlikely to be the central one to come out of this mess. But were I Taiwanese, outraged by Party attempts over the last year to flood my country with content designed to disrupt the harmony of my people and the workings of my government, I would very much want it to be. Little memes with pictures of South Sea island bases on the one side, and the number of medical kits each represents on the other could easily be made and spread about by Taiwanese interested in inflicting upon the Party what the Party just tried to inflict on them.
Americans could play the same game, of course, though in our case the message would likely die by dint of its messenger. Nor is it really in our interest to destabilize the containment of epidemic that pays no heed to the imaginary lines dividing the kingdoms of men. But if the question could be put in the Chinese people’s minds—in this world of easy sickness and woe, are military machines and censorship regimes really the best use of our wealth?—we (and much the world besides) would be better off for it.
4. I was distressed to learn of the first case of the virus in Cambodia. This was news I was hoping not to hear. I admire the pluck of my Khmer friends, who flooded my Facebook feed with pictures of themselves going to work with masks-on and heads held high. There is not much more that they can do. The Cambodian medical system is a terror. The Kingdom’s state capacity is low. The Chinese can quarantine tens of millions to keep the virus down; Taiwan, Japan, Korea, Europe, and the Anglosphere can isolate the individual sick and monitor their convalescence. This is beyond Cambodia’s ability.
The same is likely true for several countries full of Chinese workers or tourists: Indonesia, Pakistan, multiple countries on both of Africa’s coasts. I fear that these countries—and frankly, the whole of mainland Southeast Asia—will become second reservoirs for the virus. These states are not as prepared as the Chinese were to monitor sickness or maintain infrastructure under pressure. The Chinese state has mandated that food supplies continue flowing into Chinese cities under quarantine. Can the government of Cambodia or Burma do the same?
5. There are practical implications that flow from #4. If I was living in Southeast Asia right now (or any part of non-quarantined China), I would be asking myself these questions:
- Do I have enough food stored up to last my family through several days disruption? Several weeks? (And for some countries, water?)
- Do I have enough medicine—especially prescription pills for any special conditions—to last the same?
- Do I have money on hand needed to get out of the country? If there was a $1000 chartered flight (as are being organized to evacuate citizens of various nations from Wuhan), would I have the cash needed to buy a ticket?
It is quite possible that the lethality of this virus is wildly over-reported. The need for this sort of personal preparedness reflects less the likelihood you will get sick, and more the likelihood that basic services may halt in fear of spreading disease. The citizens of Wuhan are already discovering what it means to live through that reality—and they have a government strong enough to keep resources flowing. People living in other countries do not have that guarantee. Better to stock up now, while it is still easy to do so.