A truism of our times is that media hysteria quickly envelops every major story, with social media virality and cable-news imperatives combining to make any domestic controversy feel like Watergate, if not Fort Sumter, and any international incident feel like the assassination of Franz Ferdinand — until the next story rolls around and last week’s crisis is forgotten.
So it has been striking to watch media coverage of the coronavirus, which has now officially shaken free of its Chinese origins with outbreaks in Italy, South Korea and the Middle East, take a somewhat more muted tack these past few weeks. Of course there has been terrific reporting, much of it from my colleagues at The New York Times, on the surreal developments in the illness’s Wuhan epicenter.
But there has also been a strange lack of urgency in the arenas best known for their hysteria. Cable news has remained fixated on the presidential campaign, social media has been paranoid at the fringes but otherwise calm or even oblivious, our president (not typically one for threat deflation) expressed confidence that Chinese containment and spring warmth would suffice to halt the virus’s spread, and respectable opinion has circulated stern warnings about overreaction, xenophobia and panic.
The curious absence of hysteria probably reflects an interplay between polarization and ideological preconceptions. The political right would normally react to the menace of a viral outbreak in a major geopolitical rival with demands for quarantine and a zealous government response. But with a nationalist Republican president enjoying the benefits of a long economic expansion, there has been a strong partisan incentive to play down or ignore the seriousness of the virus’s threat to supply chains, the Dow, the country’s gross domestic product.
Liberals have partisan incentives that run the other way, toward emphasizing the White House’s unpreparedness in the face of a clear and present threat. But these incentives have so far been outweighed by liberalism’s ideological bias toward global openness, its anxiety about saying or doing anything that might give aid and comfort to anti-globalization forces, its fear of ever sounding too, well, Trump-y in the face of foreign threats. Thus the liberal instinct toward minimization: It’s not much worse than the flu, panicking makes things only worse, don’t spread conspiracy theories about its origins, racism toward Chinese people is the real danger here. …
As of this week, with the virus finally infecting the stock market, this bipartisan minimization looks like a serious mistake. The coronavirus is not a civilization-ender, not Stephen King’s Captain Trips come for us at last, but it’s increasingly obvious that we do have a lot to fear from it, both medically and economically — and the American response seems to lag substantially behind where we should want to be right now.
The reasonable medical fears center on what is unknown as much as what is known. Because this disease broke out in a totalitarian regime, under circumstances that even China’s government now admits are more uncertain than the pious certainty offered for weeks, our knowledge of infection rates and death rates has likely been corrupted from the beginning, by misinformation and ignorance alike.
We know enough to know that most people who get it will survive it, which is good news. But we don’t know how many people get infected, how long it incubates, whether spring or summer weather will actually impede its spread. We also don’t know how many people are carriers without knowing it, and thus how easily it might move along vectors that don’t require a chain of clearly sick people running back to its point of origin. (The outbreaks outside China, in Italy especially, suggest a longer incubation period and a lot more silent contagion than had been previously hoped.)
The extreme measures that have been taken to contain the disease inside China promise all kinds of global breakdowns if they endure there and spread around the world. The supply chains that now bind our world system have never been tested in a severe pandemic, and one can extrapolate forward from China’s developing economic slowdown, and from slow-building delays and shortages worldwide, to a scenario where the coronavirus finally brings the post-2008 expansion to a grinding, deglobalizing halt.
Perhaps the worst can be averted, but these scenarios have been obvious from early in the epidemic — and so has the possibility that underreaction could make things worse, that a bias toward stability and reassurance could lead to darker outcomes in the end. It wouldn’t be the first time: As Ari Schulman wrote in The New Atlantis in 2015, during the previous year’s Ebola outbreak, the CDC’s determination to reassure the public led to messaging “based on fragmentary evidence” that other evidence qualified or contradicted and left nurses caring for Ebola patients wearing only surgical masks instead of respirators; only after two nurses were infected were the guidelines changed. The World Health Organization’s response to the Ebola outbreak was delayed by fears that declaring an emergency “could anger the African countries involved, hurt their economies, or interfere with the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca.”
From what we can tell, the coronavirus outbreak in China followed a similar pattern of “all is well” folly and insufficient first response. But in the United States, too, the “we have nothing to fear but fear itself” messaging seems inapt, given that America’s slow internal response, our apparent failure so far to expand testing beyond those who seem most obviously exposed, means that we have no way of knowing whether and how many cases are already circulating here. We may have an Italian scenario on our hands already, disguised as normal flu cases, normal flu deaths; given the still-limited scale of U.S. testing, there is no way to be sure, and if we escape a major outbreak, it will be more from luck than prudence.
So already, the virus has exposed a clear weak spot in what you might call the liberal-globalist imagination: an overzealous “remain calm” spirit in the face of the real risks of a hyper-connected world.
And behind that weakness lurks a structural danger for the globalist project. For the past few years there has been a lively policy debate about the wisdom of exporting so much of the American industrial base to Asia, but it’s mostly revolved around national-security questions — what would it mean in a war with China, etc. But it turns out that you don’t need a conflict in the Taiwan straits to make the entire China-U.S. economic arrangement look reckless or vulnerable or unwise; you could just need one significant mutation, of one novel flulike sickness.
But before populists crow their vindication, we need to see how our populist president handles any of this. If globalism’s weakness is technocratic naïveté, populism’s faults are ignorance, incompetence and paranoia. Nothing about President Donald Trump’s response so far instills confidence that he’s ready for the kind of crisis that Candidate Trump would have been quick to recognize and politically exploit. And the fact that Rush Limbaugh spent Monday declaring that the coronavirus is no worse than the common cold, and that it’s “being weaponized” by the press “to bring down Donald Trump” — well, that doesn’t instill confidence that pressure from the right will force Trump to take the outbreak seriously.
By coincidence I’m writing this column from an airport, about to embark (hand sanitizer in my pocket) on a small tour for a new book whose argument, in part, is that the Western world may be sustainably decadent — meaning that for all our gridlock, stagnation and decay, the cushion of our wealth, the weakness of our rivals and the tranquilizing effect of virtual entertainments make continued stagnation much more likely than true crisis or collapse.
I wasn’t expecting to have my thesis tested this directly while I’m literally out expounding on it. But make no mistake: The coronavirus is a test, targeted precisely to the globalized order’s points of fracture and the mix of misgovernment and mistrust associated with the populist-establishment stalemate in the West.
I believe in my own thesis enough to assume that we’ll muddle through, in the end, with (God willing) not too much damage, not too many deaths. But for better or worse we may know a lot more about the resilience of our world-system, the sustainability of our decadence, by the time the paperback comes out.
Ross Douthat is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times and the author of “The Decadent Society: How We Became the Victims of Our Own Success.”