The roads are eerily quiet – even at rush hour. The restaurants are empty. The grocery store shelves are bare. The gym is vacant. Everyone is hunkering down to take cover from the coming coronavirus hurricane. The isolated cases and small outbreaks in spots around the country that contributed to the deaths of over fifty people are like the outer bands of the hurricane we know is coming.
Everyone is distancing themselves from other people. Here in Austin, South by Southwest was cancelled. Other conferences and concerts have been cancelled, as well. The professional sports industry has shut down. Theaters have closed. Already politicians are pointing fingers. Emergency funding bills packed with a bunch of stuff that has nothing to do with public health are being passed in Congress.
Soon will come the criticism of Western Civilization and the globalization it created saying that these modern developments have accelerated the spread of this disease that threatens the entire world. Modern airplanes and cruise ships have quickly spread the epidemic to 149 countries in just a couple of months. The complainers will accuse greedy capitalists of spreading the disease in their avaricious search for profits and for trying to make a profit in curing the disease.
But we must remember that global pandemics have existed throughout human history and presumably in our pre-history. And while their spread was much slower due to the relative isolation of human societies in the past and their slow transport back then, disease still spread inexorably around the known world. Geneticists have determined that the Black Death pandemic began around 1338 in Central Asia. This plague slowly spread from Central Asia to the Mediterranean and into Europe. Between 1346 and 1353 the Black Death took an estimated 45 to 50% of the population of Europe.
As recently as 1918, the so-called Spanish flu is thought to have infected a quarter of the people on the planet and is estimated to have killed up to 100 million. Although the source of the epidemic is disputed, it is clear that the First World War exacerbated the spread of the disease, especially among troops. Governments at war censored reports of the spread of the flu. Unaware soldiers at staging areas and later in the trenches quickly spread the disease among one another.
The advance of medical science, however, has been effective in reducing the lethality of infectious diseases. One of the first breakthroughs was when Dr. Jonas Salk developed a vaccine for polio, a crippling disease that afflicted millions (including President Franklin Delano Roosevelt) in the first half of the twentieth century but that has been eradicated from most of the world (the exceptions being Pakistan and Afghanistan).
Steven Pinker pointed out in his book, Enlightenment Now, that medical science and better hygiene have greatly reduced the incidence of disease infection, saving billions of lives, and contributing to an extension of the average lifespan of humans all over the world from around forty years in the middle of the nineteenth century to well over seventy now.
Scientific advances will eventually conquer the coronavirus. Already there are reports of new vaccines being developed. Extensive testing, such as has been done in South Korea, will limit the spread of the disease once it is fully implemented in the US. I am convinced that once this disease has been controlled and eliminated the final death toll will be relatively modest compared to past pandemics. The worst impacted areas will be those that lack adequate healthcare systems as is happening in Iran. But already, the disease is on the wane in China and South Korea as well as Taiwan.
A pandemic is an occurrence where government actions are called for. A private sector health response, no matter how comprehensive, would lack the ability to coordinate nationally all the various resources and organizations needed to limit the spread of the disease. The coronavirus may also provide a test case on the viability of European single payer health plans versus the American model of public and private health care. The Italian system already appears to be overwhelmed. The Nordic social democracies all have death rates as a percent of total population much higher than the US.
The Trump administration got off to a shaky start in addressing this crisis but has now begun taking steps in the right direction. There is still a problem in getting enough test kits and testing is vital to limiting the spread of the disease. South Korea has done a better job and has tested many more people per capita than the United States or anybody else. However, it was a private sector company in Korea, Seegene, that took the initiative to give South Korea this capability. US pharma companies are now stepping up production so that the US will greatly improve its testing ability in the coming days and weeks.
The government’s first priority is to stop the spread of the coronavirus and to preserve the health of those infected. Its next priority is to direct vital financial resources to the people and companies impacted by this crisis. People may be outraged at subsidies and bailouts for financial crises created by greed and stupidity, but they cannot object to helping those crushed by the coronavirus. House Democrats were quick to pass legislation that helped affected people - and many others as well. Republicans objected to many of the provisions that the Democrats pushed through, but they have their opportunity to revise that bill in the Senate. And the Executive Branch, headed by President Trump, needs to define the top priorities so that legislators make sure that emergency legislation directs scarce resources where they are most needed and not wasted on partisan schemes.
It is partisan politics that has left America ill equipped to respond to this or any other crisis. The constant bickering has created legislative gridlock combined with mounting deficits that have made America fragile and vulnerable to exogenous forces. In November 2020, the American people will determine which politicians have truly shown that they are capable of making America into a country that can protect its people from the great dangers that they face.
China has used the diabolical machinery of a vast authoritarian state to lock down entire provinces and to hold people suspected of being ill as virtual prisoners. The Chinese use the same tools of artificial intelligence and surveillance cameras to spot likely targets who may have a fever as they use to track dissidents. All the while glorifying Xi Jinping as the savior of the nation as new cases of infection have begun to decline.
In order for you to believe that China has overcome the coronavirus you must believe that the Communist Party of China, a vast organization designed control the Chinese people, aggrandize the role of the party and to tell only the truth that meets these political tests, is telling the truth now. Don’t forget that it was the local party officials that arrested Li Wenliang, the doctor that discovered the coronavirus and who tried alert the authorities to what was coming. Instead of acknowledging the outbreak and seeking assistance, the Party leaders covered up the spreading disease until it could no longer be contained at the local level.
It appears that China has overcome, at least temporarily, the coronavirus and controlled the spread of the disease within China by using the power of its authoritarian state. But the rest of the world must rely on the Enlightenment values that created modern science and medicine in the first place. It was China’s reliance on scientifically unproven traditional medicines that fueled the market in snakes, bats and whatever else (including rhinoceros horns and elephant tusks) that transferred the disease to humans.
As Steven Pinker pointed out in his book, it was Enlightenment based scientific inquiry that has lengthened the lives and improved the health of, not only people in developed countries like the United States, but people all over the world. But the Enlightenment is not limited to science. It also encompasses free speech and civil rights and a host of other classically liberal values. It is a package of values that work very well together.
China or other authoritarian states may adopt the scientific method to develop their weapons and improve their ability to surveil their people. But without the open discourse between scientists and researchers they will always lag behind the frontiers of science and will have to resort to stealing intellectual property to try and keep up. This was the problem that faced the Soviet Union where science was subordinate to the Communist Party.
Science and technology are inextricably linked to Enlightenment values and if we are going to be able to confront global challenges such as the coronavirus, we must preserve those values and the Western Civilization that is based on those values.