Coronavirus – Keep Calm and Wash Your Hands

So I stayed off social media for a couple of days because it was very difficult to watch the US begin to go through a collective freakout over the coronavirus. Watching a people being forced to confront their (inevitable) mortality is not a pretty sight. And of course, none of this is helped by our current polarized political and media environment.

I hate to feed the polarization beast and talk politics in what should be a medical and apolitical conversation, but it seems unavoidable. On the one hand, we have a president who engaged in his own freakout over how this might affect him and his election chances rather than the American people, going so far as to call the coronavirus a hoax. It is not, just to be clear. If ever there was a kind of crisis when we needed a public-spirited, non-divisive stable genius in charge, a disease outbreak is it. Additionally, we have people in charge at the federal level who deny science; look to religion for answers in medical matters; and constantly dismiss expertise. I don’t like to say it, but I don’t think answers will be found at the federal level. States and medical personnel are going to have to take the lead.

Also, the media need to do better. There’s the insatiable bias toward conflict built into much TV news (which I guess works because people reward it with their eyeballs). But I’ve also already seen enough “doomsday pepper” clickbait articles to know there’s a lot of irresponsible journalism out there right now.

Yes, there are circumstances in which a particular global outbreak could definitely bring down society – say, if Ebola with its average 50% death rate went global. Then there truly would be a complete strangling of the real economy. Production and supply chains for food, medicine, and essentials would break down as factories and fields and transportation networks were starved for workers. Municipal water supplies could be threatened as regular workers became unavailable and whatever chemicals and equipment are needed would be in short supply. And of course, people would be overwhelmed just surviving and burying their loved ones.

But this coronavirus is not that disease. Yes, covid-19, as it’s now called by the WHO, is incredibly infectious. Personally, I’m resolved to the fact that it’s likely to soon be widespread worldwide. But most people’s symptoms (around 80%) are mild. There are more serious cases, but the best data we have right now shows that the death rate remains around two to three percent. That death rate is far higher than the flu (at about .1%), of course, and it’s altogether tragic, like any disease outbreak (or war or famine, for that matter). But it is manageable from a societal perspective. With this disease profile, a recession seems likely (which will be painful in its own right), but the economy will eventually grind back to life.

What cannot happen, under any circumstances, is a panic. Any panic will cause more problems than the disease itself. If you’re overly worried about shortages of essentials and go on a hoarding spree, you’ll cause the very shortages you were worried about. We are all being tested now, whether we can keep our wits about us, while remaining appropriately vigilant.

What is appropriately vigilant? There are both individual and societal components. Healthy individuals need to wash their hands, avoid touching their faces, and avoid crowded spaces and sick people. People who feel sick or could have been exposed need to seek medical care, wear a mask if going out for any reason, and respect quarantine orders. Among the needed societal measures are those quarantines, as well as continued monitoring and testing and making sure hospitals and medical personnel are well supplied.

The goal here is to avoid any given hospital system getting overwhelmed. That’s when it really gets ugly. This is what we see in Wuhan, China – the epicenter of the outbreak and where tens of thousands of people have gotten sick. That situation is unusual compared to other countries so far, but it carries critical lessons for the US. Wuhan’s crisis was exacerbated by a political system that saw coverup, denial, and self-interest as more important than public health. I’m talking about the closed, propagandistic system of communist China, of course, but I am seeing far too many parallels in the early response by the Trump administration and Fox News. To any Trump supporters and Republicans, you must demand better. Sure, Democrats and the media will go too far the other way, but trust me, you want the benefits of an open society that questions and critiques more than you want an authoritarian society that sweeps under the rug.

To wrap up, my basic messages are these: Don’t panic. Stay vigilant. Support medical personnel and researchers. Help your fellow citizens get needed care.

Sure, circumstances could change. After all, before the WHO named this thing covid-19, it was referred to as the novel coronavirus – novel, as in “new”. We’re learning more every day. But I’m confident, based on what we know so far, we can get through this – calmly and together.

The 21st Century Dilemma

A friend sends me this column by Niall Ferguson:

Screen Shot 2018-06-13 at 4.31.14 PM

I don’t see myself naturally aligned with Ferguson on much, but I found this analysis interesting.

That said, I think he glosses over the fact that China represents a wholly different political system with regard to human rights and freedoms than the US and Europe do. That same cultural perspective should be unifying us, and instead, Trump attacks our democratic allies and warms up to dictators.

That’s emerging as the central danger to our republic from Trump. He’s a wannabe autocrat. And while we might constrain him at home (if Republicans ever grow a spine), there’s a very real danger that he will have permanently damaged our relationships with our fellow democracies. And once that happens, autocracy will rule the global political day (which, in fact, is just a reversion to the human norm of millennia).

I envision a global democratic alliance that also includes India. Sure, India often gets laughed at for having so much democracy that it can’t develop – or function. But I’d rather throw humanity’s lot in with that problem than autocracy.

We did it to ourselves

Remember how pretty much the entire principled argument for engagement with Communist China was that it would become more democratic as it got exposed to our multi-national corporations, freedom, values, etc.?

Yeah, not so much.

Assuming this hypothesis was ever more than just cover for increasing business profits, it’s been proven completely wrong.

Xi Jinping is now part of the growing trend of authoritarian leaders – which has proven to be comfortably compatible with capitalism. (The shock!)

I don’t like to give Trump credit for much, but when he stood in China and said we ourselves were to blame for our position relative to China, he was right. And it’s been bi-partisan policy for decades.

And it was a contributing factor to the backlash that got Trump elected – which the Democrats still don’t seem to grasp.

The 21st Century will prove to be an interesting one.

What’s at stake in the Chinese century?

This Sunday the 10th was the 69th anniversary of the adoption by the United Nations General Assembly of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. LandscapeAs one of the various attempts to put civilization back together after World War II, the creation of the Declaration – chaired by American Eleanor Roosevelt – spelled out in 30 articles a rich set of freedoms to which every person in the world should be entitled. Forty-eight nations approved the Declaration, with the Soviet Union, other Communist countries, Saudi Arabia, and the Union of South Africa abstaining from the vote. China, which was then the Republic of China, voted for its adoption.

Certainly, the principles in the Declaration weren’t always practiced. Many nations and leaders would fall short in the decades to come. For example, even the United States condoned torture during the George W. Bush administration, and it has kept prisoners locked away in Gitmo now for years with no hope of release. But that doesn’t change that the Declaration is still on the books as an aspirational document. And it remains true that it was modeled on the U.S. Bill of Rights and notions of individual liberty, which the U.S. has promoted during its “American century” as one of the leading ideologies during that period.

But now, the U.S. century seems to be coming to a close, and in its place, we have the rise of the Chinese century under the Communist Party. This has been a banner year for the People’s Republic of China and its supreme leader, Xi Jinping. After decades of building its economic and diplomatic power, in 2017, China stepped up to become a world leader, while the U.S. – after the election of Donald Trump – seems to have stepped back. If the trend lines of China’s development continue, we seem to be poised for a coming “Chinese century”.

If one adopts a certain, blunt nationalist and nativist perspective, this is to be feared. The hubris of nationalism would dictate that the U.S. should run the show to the exclusion of everyone else. I confess, having grown up in a world where the U.S. was pre-eminent, it will seem strange if that disappears. But I don’t necessarily fear it.

I have never felt that the U.S. had some pre-ordained right to remain the global hegemon. I reject outright any kind of racist, “Yellow Peril” backlash. I don’t necessarily fear Chinese ownership of companies – after all, U.S. and European companies have been doing this for decades in the rest of the world. And I don’t even necessarily fear China as a military threat. Modern economics makes enormous wars a bad idea. (And on this score, the U.S. seems the bigger threat with its many small wars in the Mideast and elsewhere).

No, I don’t fear a Chinese century for these reasons. What I fear is what will happen to the values spelled out in the Declaration.

It seems an inevitable rule of history that the greatest standing power has enormous influence over the culture and norms of other civilizations. This was true of the British empire and then, in turn, the American empire. While I acknowledge the many flaws of these systems, I still believe in the values of freedom and human rights that emerged from western culture, and these values did manage to seep into the international consciousness. It is no accident that we have liberal democratic regimes now in Germany, Japan, South Korea, and India. The rights and political systems pioneered, articulated, and promoted in the west still shined through, despite the many failures and atrocities of the promoters.

But these values are not shared currently by China. And in fact, under Pres. Xi, China has become more repressive and intolerant of freedom, even as it continues to promote trade with other countries. Should China remain on track in its development and current political stability, I fear that the allure and support for systems of authoritarianism will grow – and that the systems of human rights as spelled out in the Declaration will shrivel down until they are the norms of a group of small, backwater nations that carry little influence. My fear is that the era of human rights in human history will have reached its high water mark, never to rise again. Pres. Xi expressly rejected these values in his address to the Community Party Congress this year. I think we need to take him at his word.

Nothing is guaranteed, of course, in history. China has many internal tensions to avoid and overcome. But I am a bit of pessimist by nature. And I think we need, as inheritors of the western tradition of rights, make sure that they are not lost as the new century begins.

Notes on the Trump inauguration

Well, starting tomorrow, America and the world are going to get modern Republicanism full-bore. Like many, I’m fairly certain the Trump administration – combined with the Tea-Party-style Congress – will be a disaster. I believe we are witnessing the beginning of the end of American pre-eminence. Here’s my rundown of the domestic and foreign train wrecks to come.


On the domestic side, I predict the greatest direct danger of a Trump presidency will be that an insecure, vindictive egomaniac has control of the vast investigatory and police powers of the presidency – police powers, by the way, that have been granted and blessed by members of both parties. He’s already proven he won’t be bound by norms or a sense of decency. I think anyone who opposes him – and that means any Republicans, too – will be a target. Based on the way the campaign was run, I think minorities are especially vulnerable. Our main hope lies in either principled, whistle-blowing law enforcement agents or principled congressional Republicans. Last time I checked, those congressional Republicans claimed to fear the power of the state and believe in strong oversight – well, at least when it came to Democrats. Given that these are our two primary lines of defense, I think we’re in deep trouble.


Internationally, the greatest direct danger will be Trump’s terrible handling of the rise of China as an economic and military power. The world is inevitably realigning (especially in Asia, where I live). Little can be done about the coming of a world with multiple powers. Even so, I believe the Trump administration will make a complete hash of it – either by fomenting a trade war or by blundering into some hot skirmishes. Also, recall that this is the guy who doesn’t think much of our treaties with our fellow democracies and doesn’t mind the spread of nuclear weapons. I don’t have much confidence in his judgment of American interests abroad. And if Trump and the Republican party end up taking a thoroughly authoritarian turn – partly as I’ve outlined above, but also by limiting rights like voting and freedom of the press – the US will have little credibility to challenge illiberal regimes.

Some things never seem to change

There are other issues, both domestic and foreign, that I don’t label as a top threat – not because they aren’t horrible – but because I don’t see them as an enormous break from the recent past.

First off, I believe his administration will prove itself corrupt and incompetent – just look at his cabinet picks – but we’ve been through that before with the George W. Bush administration and survived. It could hardly get worse than having an administration dedicated to launching a war of choice in Iraq by any means necessary. Maybe American voters will again reject the Republican party as this plays out. But given the rise of Trump, I’m less confident in that.

The march toward plutocracy and a society that fails to provide for all will continue. This will get worse, certainly, with the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, but after that, it will simply be back on the trendline from before. Trump bullying a few companies into saving a few manufacturing jobs at the expense of others will not alter the long-term trend. An effective political movement to combat inequality has yet to gel. Maybe its time will come in the next eight years, but that would be too hopeful for this post.

Both domestically and internationally, the danger of a significant Islamic terrorist attack remains. This has been the norm for more than a decade now. Let’s hope that police agencies worldwide are able to head off any major plots.

Finally, as they have so many times before, the Democrats will likely prove themselves incapable at facing the challenge of the surging Republican party and capitalizing on their opponents’ mistakes. I believe the Republican party is a deeply cynical, ruthless political operation. But the Democrats are largely incompetent.

Worst of all

All of what I’ve said so far is pretty bad. But none of them are the worst. No, the worst threat is the complete breakdown of any sense of shared truth. We seem, as a body politic, to have lost the ability to reason together and to compromise, both key values for any republic to function. Instead, truth is defined first by party affiliation, then by religious or ethnic membership, and then by class interests. People will believe whatever their tribe believes, even if the tribe believed the complete opposite just days, weeks, or months before. This is, by the way, far, far worse on the right than it is on the left. But to try to tell them that is to be called a liar. On it goes.

So, there it is. Your happiness report. And it all starts tomorrow, Saturday, by Asian reckoning. See you on the other side.