The Coronavirus Crisis and Western Cultural Arrogance
The Western world is on the verge of embarrassing itself to the bone in fighting a health crisis of historic proportions.
March 15, 2020
Even though we are only in phase two of a four-stage coronavirus crisis, it is never too early to start learning the lessons that were missed and hence contributed to the widening of the crisis.
In case you wonder: When I say “only stage two,” here are stages 3 and 4: The corona epidemic (= stage one) and the ensuing current financial crisis (=stage two) are followed by a deflationary shock for the real economy (=stage three) – and then, in stage four, the question is whether our monetary and economic system really still works.
Stage 1: The epidemic that did not have to become a crisis
We initially had an outbreak of the new virus in China. After severe initial failures at the local level, Chinese central government authorities decided to initiate a battle plan against the virus that appears to be successful. Infections are now declining.
Of course, the virus has not actually been defeated in China, but it has been subdued. The coronavirus will remain active, infect the population and be a factor of Chinese life for years. But, crucially, the authorities have gained time.
Those Chinese: An arrogant Western response
And what did the Western countries do? Watch with amazement at the radical steps the Chinese took to fight the virus.
Otherwise, the Western world at that stage was mostly characterized by a sense of remote curiosity. China is far – and haven’t we always known about the poor sanitary conditions in Chinese (and indeed Asian) livestock poultry markets?
Our political leaders had other concerns. The carnival season was in full force and had to be enjoyed as always. And, of course, there is always soccer and the games had to be played.
Germany thankfully no longer has a royal house – but, make no mistake about it, nobody dares interfere with “King Soccer.”
Those Italians: An arrogant intra-European response
When the virus suddenly appeared in Italy, deeply ingrained prejudices were quick at hand. Haven’t we always known about Italian laxness?
Aren’t their politicians – and society – basically incapable with regard to dealing with serious matters? And isn’t the Italian health care system very creaky and underfunded? It is certainly not as good as ours.
A self-fulfilling prophecy
Now the virus is everywhere, including in Germany. Instead of being prepared to learn from the experiences of other countries in time, our politicians moved from arrogance to dalliance.
The sense of the remoteness of the crisis and of an astounding level of relaxation among our political leaders gave way to rounds of arguing about school closings and empty-headed men of principle like Michael Müller, the Berlin mayor, who fought to keep the clubs and theaters open.
Others continued to shake hands and even make fun of the virus. Assuaging statements about it being only as deadly as a normal flu virus were to be heard.
Donald Trump’s catastrophic crisis management
It provides no comfort to Europeans that the response in the United States, led by the vacuous and vain Donald Trump, was even worse than that of the Berlin mayor.
Trump had engaged in acts of outright idiocy such as dissolving the White House pandemic team shortly after taking office in 2017. Then, in all his pomposity and grandiosity as Master of the Universe, he chose to downplay the risks of the virus.
Test kits were unavailable for days in the world’s most expensive healthcare system. And its health insurance system still does not cover close to 30 million people. The number of unreported infections in the United States is correspondingly high.
Only after weeks of delay did Mr. Trump resolve to declare a national emergency, while steadfastly and explicitly refusing to accept any responsibility for the outcome of his own mismanagement. But at least he got in his jibes against the European countries.
Culture shock: Asia works?
As it stands, China’s neighboring countries in Asia appear to show how to do crisis management successfully. Taiwan, Vietnam, Hong Kong and Singapore took decisive and consistent measures right at the beginning of the epidemic to keep the number of cases low.
Even though most of these countries border directly on China, the number of infected people, when put in relation to the size of their populations, is significantly lower than in Europe.
South Korea, although it was particularly affected by the epidemic (partly due to a mass wedding), is proving to be the test case for how an OECD country can deal with the crisis. The death rate is significantly lower than in other countries.
This Asian success is no accident. These countries had the close-up experience with SARS in 2003 and they have drawn the correct policy conclusions from it.
Our Western politicians and societies, meanwhile, apparently do not think it necessary to learn from other countries. The current experience is teaching us otherwise.
Instead of learning from the experiences in time to fight the coronavirus, Western politicians acted arrogantly.
Even though many Asian countries border China, the number of people infected with the coronavirus -- relative to their population size -- is significantly lower than in Europe.
Asian success in fighting the coronavirus is no accident. They had a close-up experience with SARS in 2003 -- and have drawn the correct policy conclusions from it.
On managing the coronavirus, Trump refuses to accept any responsibility. But at least he got in jibes against European countries.
Ingrained arrogance in Western societies means they think they know better. The current experience on the coronavirus is teaching us otherwise.
In Charts: Coronavirus
March 15, 2020