Collective Wisdom Contemplative Activism

This uncoordinated Western dance should give us all cause for pause

The metaphor of the dance is something that has occured to a number of people who have described our response to the corona situation. But the institutions, and the wider populations of the West have been engaged so far in a really uncoordinated, frankly hard to watch group dance. Rather like watching a bunch of people who’ve only danced techno suddenly try to do line dancing, there is a lot of stumbling over each other. I have found it distressingly clumsy, and not because I am that worried about Coronavirus personally, or even socially, but because I am worried whether we can manage to navigate our way through the complexities of the near future, when we can’t even handle something as well understood as an extremely nasty cold virus. I also have renewed hope — not because of how we’ve responded to the corona crisis, but because of what it gives us a chance to learn. I hope that the lesson we take away from this is not that our societies need to learn more about virology and quarantines, as much as we need to re-learn how to build and to give trust — to be people that can work effectively together.

Without descending into any self-hatred, lets ask ourselves how wrong this summary is: The medical community suggested simple anti-viral choreography (limit travel, limit contact, test, test, wash, stay home) well before the outbreak, but rather than quickly taking this advice, we’ve done a slow shuffle towards half-hearted lockdowns. They are clearly going to take much longer than they need to because they are spottily observed and enforced and in most English speaking countries, incompetently managed. This means a likely depression and further chaos.

I have deep concern about the climate and civilisation, generally, so I have mixed feelings about this all — in my opinion some other straw would have broken the back of the beleaguered camel whose tiny cells we are. Or to use another metaphor, this could be like the fender bender that the dumbass driver needed to experience, to scare him before he makes a flaming ball of wreckage out of himself and his passengers. Before this pandemic I actually agreed with climate extremists like Kevin Anderson that we needed a planned recession to reduce greenhouse gases, but instead we’ve stumbled our way into one. Maybe it’s better to be lucky than to be good, but the point is that our performance shows that as a society, we aren’t prepared to navigate the future.

My intent is not to blame anybody, but simply to reflect on how we got here, and on what this might really teach us. The essence of coordinated dancing is trust and we’ve lost it. Blind trust in a bad dance partner can be dangerous, but everybody doing their own thing is where we’ve gone in our minds, our culture and on the dance floor and it shows. 

Before reviewing our failures in greater detail, I will give credit first – maybe we really are following deeper instincts towards a needed breakdown. Maybe the dance needs to be interrupted by painful stumbling for all parties to realise that there must be a better way and take the time to learn how to dance better. When I go to a shop in my rural Ireland I see some fairly half-hearted attempts to observe social distancing. I don’t blame people, some part of me thinks we need this and fears a neat and sudden ending that would feel strangely premature. I admit finding a silver lining in every day’s news of stubbornly stable levels of new infections across the West, and I, like many I talk to (quietly), almost feel a need to take part in the half-assed distancing, and to risk becoming an addition to Covid statistics because that’s what it will take for the great pause to drag on. 

But at the same time, I realise that our uncoordinated muddling is stupid, when seen against the alternatives we could have — such as a society-wide twenty hour work week during which we’d be seeing our friends and family in between our gardening and book-reading. But the great pause is here, and lets be honest we weren’t getting here through coordinated political dances anytime soon. I wrestle with the ambiguity of this all, delicious and repugnant in turns. I hope the rest of this doesn’t sound too harsh, I just want to be honest, there’s such a thing as too much politeness, especially in times of crisis.

The first sign of uncoordination happened when one by one, western nations waited for the virus to move out of the realm of abstraction and “become real” on live television, before admitting that maybe it wasn’t an Asian problem, a media creation designed to scare us, or a fantasy. We slowly admitted, maybe, just letting everybody do their thing, and relying on individual actions guided purely by enlightened self interest might not produce the collective action we needed in the time frame required. The reaction of many people was to start reading up on epidemiology, and virus statistics — to train themselves on epidemiology, rather than listen to epidemiologists. It was a democratic reaction, as we see it, but ineffective. 

To reiterate — it really is a new version of a well known cold virus. Even if it is deadlier, because we have no immunity yet, it is not dissimilar to things we’ve seen before and have studied for centuries. We have people who have been preparing for new viruses, of unknown deadliness, and known uncommunicability to come from unknown places for years. The basics of epidemiology have been stable for over one hundred years. We just have to get out of our own way, and listen to those people, like we listen to auto mechanics and paramedics.

But we didn’t, so after lurid images of stuffed Italian hospitals and pleading Italian doctors, our people and governments listened to the medical community, and governments took on, or were forced to take on, responsibility to direct the collective fortunes of their nations. Equally reluctantly, the populations have decided to listen, mostly.

Let me be clear — I really wish that I believed that the US, where I was born, and the UK where I spend most of my time now, were collectively ready to act in a free and inspiring way. We could see that we face a formidable challenge, put differences aside, come together, and each be relied upon to do our part to get infections down, so that we can be back out in the streets, like in many Asian countries. But it is hard to believe that this would be possible. The rate at which the virus is decreasing in Western countries means that it will take months for infections to decrease to manageable levels. 

When contrasted with China, Japan, Korea, and Taiwan, where governments enjoy either the obedience or willing support of the population, the arc of the virus in the West, where individualism is a religion and the governments are neither trusted nor obeyed are stark. It is notable that Germany where people obey traffic controls and even punk rockers don’t jaywalk has infection trajectories resembling like Asia. The experience of SARS is part of the reason for success in Asia, but let’s not forget that Korea had 3 cases of that virus (fewer than France, Germany, or the US), and SARS did not really spread much in 2002 — why? 

The governments of the most affected countries gave directions that interfered with personal freedoms and people listened. Koreans didn’t have an outbreak, they learned from those who had worse experiences. Asian countries didn’t start wearing masks after SARS, it was already an old habit. Asian cultures tend to have a more collectivist mindset, and place value on working together. The West has developed a nasty tendency of resenting anybody that we perceive as telling us what to do, and has decided that expertise and authority are synonyms for oppression.

And there is a lot to that. But there’s also a lot missing.

Seen in the best possible light, governments and academic institutions are the means by which “we, the people” act and think together, especially in the face of threats. There are some things which must be done in unison, like moving a couch, and the more people involved, the harder it is to achieve coordination. Some jobs, like building highways and stopping epidemics require millions of participants. That is where the government is supposed to come in. The old creation myth of democracy was that we created the government with a social contract, between all members of society and freely chose to keep to our word.

The reaction to the Corona virus has reflected a much darker view, in which the government and academia are run by “them.” “We” have no way out of the contract, and don’t feel like “we” signed it. There are a number of visions of who “they” are and who “we” are, but what matters is that “we” don’t trust “them” very much. So when scientists (them) initially spoke, both we, the population, and many of the politicians we’ve elected were skeptical. Nearly everybody is cynical about politicians. 

So really, what the West was not in position to do was listen to its experts.

Instead, almost the entire Western world waited to implement and then to endorse the lockdown until they seemed on a pace to rise to infection levels that were as high as Hubei, the most affected province of China. Now that the virus has multiplied, we need social distancing to be observed almost completely, to drive infections way down — not simply to low levels, but almost to extinction. For every couple of days we waited to act on advice, we now wait a week in mostly porous lockdowns for the infection rates to fall by the same amount. If even several hundred uncounted cases survive when lockdown restrictions are lifted, we risk a new explosive growth, because the vast majority of us have not acquired immunity, despite all the hubbub.

Wuhan, Hubei’s major city was on lockdown for more than 2 and a half months under an authoritarian lockdown. How long we are trapped in our houses depends on how quickly we manage to achieve decreases in case counts that resemble Hubei. For the most part, Western countries have first hoped that social distancing will be observed spontaneously, and then enforced it more strongly, little by little, using a top-down approach. It has taken a long time for us to accept what a quick and successful lockdown would require — out of the millions of people who are infected, almost nobody shirks. 

You can see this from the examples displayed below — data from Korea shows a much faster drop off than in Spain and Italy, see worldometers for data from China, Japan and Taiwan which look pretty much the same. Many don’t trust Chinese statistics but neighboring countries show that quick decreases in the disease are possible. In contrast, in Italy, it took two and a half weeks after the peak of the infections, for the number of new patients to dip below half of the largest day for the first time. France, which has been the most authoritarian in its lockdown out of the Western countries, has managed the fastest decreases. This doesn’t mean authoritarianism is the only response — but it does mean that acting together by any means is effective. Whether we need to be forced to act together is obviously up to us.

Data ource for all charts: Johns Hopkins Center for Systems Science and Engineering

I am not trying to properly place the blame for this state of affairs. I don’t blame politicians (too much) for not taking stronger actions sooner: If they had taken strong actions early, they risked being called fascists (as some were) because without visible evidence that the coronavirus is deadly  and difficult to contain, they could not justify themselves to a skeptical and divided public. It would be nice to have fearless politicians, but we don’t elect truth-tellers. I really wish we’d tone down the hateful attacks on Trump and Johnson who filled a political vacuum that we all contributed to. I disagree with them, but they are not “the problem.”

I also don’t blame people for mistrusting their institutions and leaders. We all know that something is rotten at high levels, and it would take a whole blog (at least) to address the thorny question of why I think we should now trust the same governments that hardly convicted anybody involved in the 2008 financial crisis. A simple answer is that pandemics, economic depressions, and famines, like climate breakdown, benefit very few people. Why did they let it happen, you ask? Nobody’s in charge when nobody trusts anybody.

No one person could have changed this dynamic, but we are all responsible — we can respond. That is simply a truth that we have to wrap our heads around. 

Collective action determined by politics always determines what individual choices are available to us, it has never been any other way, and it never will be. If we continue to see everybody involved in politics as inherently untrustworthy, we will continue to choose our politicians badly; seeing vile motives behind every utterance. It would be foolish to think of politicians as inherently trustworthy, as well. Unfortunately, we need to form institutions that we can trust — and for that we need levels of engagement in conversation and action towards new social structures that we have not seen for a very long time. We need to start conversations with open minds, so that others trust that something will come out of them.  We knew it was time for this before this crisis, I hope we accept this now.

To end, that is why I am a lot less interested in talking about the Coronavirus itself, than how we learn about ourselves through our handling of it. Our lack of an ability to dance together means we still have some time in lockdown to think about how to be the kind of people who can act together and meet the challenges that history will throw at us. Climate change, AI, and other events we didn’t anticipate are coming and we can be a lot readier for them than we were for the Covid-19. Paranoia will not save us, we can instead worry about how to be a community that cares about each other, and cares enough about the future of others to reflect on how we got here, how we create institutions and politics we can trust, and how we can act together more effectively in the future. It is a long conversation and a big project — so let’s get started.

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