The pandemic has revealed Americans to be tacit Social Darwinists, while trapping the Chinese in a vast Panopticon.
Authoritarian regimes tend to boast about themselves and denigrate their rivals. President Xi Jinping’s China is no exception. “As the Covid-19 epidemic takes away hundreds of lives every day in the U.S.,” wrote Hu Xijin, the former editor-in-chief of the Global Times, on Jan. 14, “that country’s propaganda machinery is engaging in vicious smears against China’s dynamic zero-case policy of epidemic prevention … Think about it. More than 800,000 Americans died from Covid-19 in the U.S. Behind these numbers, how many sad and desperate stories are there?”
“The experience and facts of the past two years,” wrote Guo Yan in the Economic Daily five days later, “have shown that China’s general strategy of ‘foreign defense against imported [cases] and domestic defense against breakouts’ and the general policy of ‘dynamic clearing’ are the Covid prevention policies best suited to China’s own national conditions on top of being beneficial to the world … It is the inaction and chaotic actions of some policy makers that have caused the American people to fall into the epidemic crisis time and time again.”
Might the Chinese be right? As we reach the second anniversary of the Covid pandemic, perhaps the most surprising thing is how many Americans have lost their lives compared to how few have perished in China. How are we to explain this astonishing divergence?
The simple answer is that, despite being the source of the virus that caused the pandemic, the Chinese managed containment very successfully, while the U.S. bungled everything from testing to mask-wearing to quarantining.
Some people go even further, arguing (as does Chinese Communist Party propaganda) that the difference in death tolls illustrates the superiority of China’s political system over America’s corrupt and self-indulgent democracy. However, I have never bought this second argument. And I am no longer satisfied with the first.
We now have a U.S. death toll of between (depending on your source) 860,000 and 883,000 deaths due to Covid, the 20th-highest mortality relative to population globally. Actual mortality is running at 19% above the expected figure (compared with 5% in Canada). We are heading for a million deaths by May. According to the Economist, we may already be there.
True, in relative terms — deaths per million — U.S. mortality is not the worst in the world (it ranks 19th). In terms of excess mortality, too, the U.S. has fared better than a number of Latin American and Eastern European countries. The puzzle remains that on paper — according to the Global Health Index published in 2019 — the U.S. was better prepared for a pandemic than any other country.
Even more remarkable is how few Chinese the new coronavirus has killed: Fewer than 5,000, meaning a death rate three orders of magnitude smaller than the U.S. rate. Considering that the pandemic originated in Wuhan, this is an astonishing achievement. Of course, skepticism is always warranted where Chinese statistics are concerned. But even the Economist’s estimates, which suggest that there may have been significantly higher excess mortality in China, point to a far lower relative death toll than in the U.S.
Two things explain the remarkably high mortality the U.S. has suffered in this pandemic. First, the American public health bureaucracy failed utterly. Initially, when we knew very little except that it was contagious and dangerous, the relevant agencies were staggeringly complacent when they should have been frantically testing, tracing and isolating.Sponsored ContentWhy Decisions Made Now Will Steer the Net Zero TrajectoryUBS
Then, in March 2020, the official mind flipped from complacency to panic, partly on the basis of a paper by the British epidemiologist Neil Ferguson (no relation), who argued that we had to lock people in their homes until vaccines were available or 2.2 million Americans would die.
As it became clear that this approach would wreck the global economy, the public health officials resorted to improvisation, alternately tightening and loosening restrictions on economic and social life in a reactive and mostly ineffective way. Masks were at first dismissed as unnecessary, then became mandatory even in some outdoor locations, where they served no purpose.
When some skeptical scientists challenged the wisdom of lockdowns, the public health establishment was dismissive. The Great Barrington Declaration, published in October 2020 by Harvard’s Martin Kulldorff, Oxford’s Sunetra Gupta and Stanford’s Jay Bhattacharya, offered a persuasive critique of blanket pandemic lockdowns, arguing instead for “focused protection” of vulnerable groups such as the elderly or those with medical conditions.
“This proposal from the three fringe epidemiologists … seems to be getting a lot of attention,” Francis Collins, head of the National Institutes of Health, emailed Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases. “There needs to be a quick and devastating published take down of its premises … Is it underway?”
Now that we have vaccines with high efficacy and a variant that causes mild flu-like symptoms in most vaccinated people, the official mind remains wedded to its playbook — in the parts of the U.S. where most people are vaccinated, such as northern California, where I live. Educational institutions have reverted to remote learning (an oxymoron, as everyone knows); masks are ubiquitous, even outdoors; a host of petty regulations persist.
Meanwhile, in the states with significant numbers of unvaccinated and vulnerable people, almost no precautions are taken. Consequently, the intensive care units are filling up once again. I make this the fifth wave of Covid in the U.S., and already mortality relative to population is higher than in South Africa, Denmark and the U.K., where the omicron variant struck sooner.
Yet there is a second reason for the relatively high American mortality during the pandemic, which has to do with public attitudes and behavior. I have come to the conclusion, after observing my fellow Americans for two years that — whatever our public health officials may tell us, and whatever some of us may say — in practice and in aggregate we are a nation of Social Darwinists.
Social Darwinism is a contentious term, I know, but its history is illuminating. A century ago, the ideas that came to be summed up as Social Darwinism by historians such as Richard Hofstadter were not limited to a far-right lunatic fringe. They derived from the writings of some of the era’s pre-eminent proponents of social progress.
Herbert Spencer (1820–1903) was the English philosopher who did most to import ideas derived from Charles Darwin and other evolutionary theorists (notably Jean-Baptiste Lamarck) into the study of contemporary human societies. In works such as “First Principles” (1862), “Principles of Biology” (1864) and “The Man Versus the State” (1884), Spencer sought to discern universal laws of evolution.
One of his key contentions was that most social interventions by government were harmful, no matter how well-intentioned, because they interfered with the natural laws of evolution, which were the main driver of progress.
Some Social Darwinists went even further, arguing that infectious disease had a role to play in promoting the survival of the fittest. Franz Ignaz Pruner, a German physician, anthropologist and racial theorist, wrote “The Global Cholera Pandemic and Nature’s Police” (1851), based partly on his observations in Egypt. Wherever Europeans and Americans established colonies in the tropics, officials would periodically muse that the terrifyingly high mortality rates arising from disease — and of course from poor sanitation and malnutrition — must, like famines in India, be part of some providential design.
It was a relatively short step from Social Darwinism to eugenics — the theory popularized by Francis Galton, Karl Pearson and others that government should actively promote the reproduction of the “fit” and limit the reproduction of the “unfit.”
It is easy to forget today how influential such notions were a century ago, when they appealed almost as much to progressives as to proto-fascists. Chicago sociologist and reformer Charles Henderson opposed immigration of the “unfit,” proposed that the “feebleminded and degenerate” be banished to rural labor colonies and sterilized to “prevent their propagation of defects and thus the perpetuation of their misery in their offspring.”
As Spencer had made clear, it was a guiding principle of Social Darwinism that public-health legislation “defeats its own end” and “favours the multiplication of those worst fitted for existence, and, by consequence, hinders the multiplication of those best fitted for existence.”
In “Social Statics,” he used language echoed today by American libertarians:
If … it is the duty of the state to protect the health of its subjects, it is its duty to see that all the conditions of health are fulfilled by them. Shall this duty be consistently discharged? If so, the legislature must enact a national dietary: prescribe so many meals a day for each individual; fix the quantities and qualities of food, both for men and women; state the proportion of fluids, when to be taken, and of what kind; specify the amount of exercise, and define its character; describe the clothing to be employed … and to enforce these regulations it must employ a sufficiency of duly-qualified officials, empowered to direct every one’s domestic arrangements.
Like many of today’s critics of the public-health agencies, Spencer argued that the medical profession and bureaucrats were actuated by self-interest rather than altruism and had an “unmistakable wish to establish an organized, tax-supported class, charged with the health of men’s bodies, as the clergy are charged with the health of their souls.”
Reading “Social Statics” today, you see how completely Spencer lost the argument. As we enter the third year of the Covid pandemic, the public-health clergy have established themselves in precisely the kind of well-paid positions of power that Spencer foresaw, leaving a motley array of lockdown skeptics and anti-vaxxers to rehash his old arguments.
I have tended to steer clear of the lockdown skeptics and to heap opprobrium on the anti-vaxxers. But what we really see in both cases is a kind of revival of Social Darwinism that extends beyond the militant opponents of lockdowns and vaccines to include the many millions of Americans who over the past two years have simply flouted the pandemic rules. Ignoring the prescriptions of an intrusive nanny state, or complying with them so carelessly as to render them ineffective, they have tacitly given free rein to the principle of the survival of the fittest.
Compared with Western Europeans and especially with East Asians, Americans have a remarkably high tolerance of excess mortality, especially when it is heavily concentrated in politically underrepresented social groups. The same is true with respect to the relatively high death toll from firearms that Americans tolerate, not forgetting the staggering mortality caused by opioid overdoses in the past decade, which has no parallel in any developed country.
Now contrast the American experience of the pandemic with the Chinese. If Americans resemble modern-day Social Darwinists, the People’s Republic is a utilitarian Panopticon worthy of the English philosopher Jeremy Bentham’s idealized penitentiary of the late-18th century, which relied on prisoners’ uncertainty about whether they were under observation to incentivize good behavior.
No country has more effectively used non-pharmaceutical restrictions on social and economic life to control the spread of SARS-CoV-2 than China. True, these restrictions were widely imitated, as in New Zealand. But the reason they were more effective in China than elsewhere is precisely that the Communist Party’s system of surveillance creates what Bentham called “the sentiment of a sort of invisible omnipresence.”
And yet there turns out to be a catch, in the form of a new and much more infectious variant of the virus. In omicron, Xi Jinping’s Panopticon faces a new and ghastly challenge. Not only does the Chinese population have essentially no natural immunity from previous infections, thanks to the Zero-Covid strategy; the inferior Chinese-made vaccines also offer little protection against omicron. As a consequence, China must impose tighter restrictions than ever before.
Currently, over 20 million people are under some form of lockdown in half a dozen cities, notably Xian and Tianjin, because small numbers of people tested positive. Traditional Lunar New Year celebrations are being restricted. The Beijing Winter Olympics will take place with almost no foreign spectators. The volume of international flights to China has been reduced by more than 90%.
In some ways, China’s reversion to being a closed society is of a piece with Xi’s attempt to revive other aspects of Maoism: his reassertion of the Communist Party’s dominance over the private sector, his call for more egalitarian social outcomes, his intolerance of domestic dissent and ethnic minorities, his readiness to threaten war. But it is not at all clear how any of this helps the Chinese economy grow sufficiently fast to overtake that of the U.S.
By contrast, the American propensity to ignore (or at least honor mainly in the breach) the bureaucracy’s rules and regulations — combined with the opening of the fiscal and monetary floodgates — has meant that paradoxically, the public health disaster of the pandemic has been accompanied by an economic recovery so red-hot that U.S. inflation has jumped to a rate not seen since 1982.
In the eyes of today’s Western public health experts, none of this makes sense. Neil Ferguson gave an interview last year in which he described how he and his fellow scientific advisors to the British government realized that they might be able to copy the Chinese strategy for containing Covid. “People’s sense of what is possible in terms of control changed quite dramatically between January and March ,” he recalled. “They [i.e., the Chinese] claimed to have flattened the curve. I was sceptical at first. … But as the data accrued it became clear it was an effective policy.”
The question was: Could the West copy China’s lockdown? “It’s a communist one-party state, we said. We couldn’t get away with it in Europe, we thought,” said Ferguson. “And then Italy did it. And we realized we could.”
It continues to puzzle me that so many smart people were convinced that the People’s Republic of China should be the role model for a free society faced with a pandemic (as opposed to the East Asian democracies like South Korea and Taiwan that have contained the virus with minimal lockdowns). But that was the road we attempted to go down, inflicting immense economic disruption until we realized that it was unsustainable — that not even Ferguson (or, it turns out, the government he was advising) could adhere to a system of universal house arrest, much less don’t-tread-on-me Americans.
In the U.S. today, Covid has become as much a bureaucratic as a medical condition. Having had omicron in December, I and my family remain subject to a plethora of rules that make absolutely no sense, as we can neither catch nor transmit the virus again so soon after having been infected. I pointlessly wear a mask at meetings and on planes. I pointlessly submit to regular Covid tests. I pointlessly fill out online forms attesting to my children’s health.
Perhaps at some point this year a new variant — Pi, Rho, Sigma, take your pick — will emerge that I can catch and that will give me and others something more than a mild cold. But until that time comes, I shall feel a sense of individualist resentment — that I now realize is very American — about the whole dysfunctional edifice of rules and regulations. When (if?) they are finally swept away, I shall rejoice.
And, if the Chinese Panopticon finally loses control of Chinese virus in this, the third plague year, I’ll recall that, in the history of struggles between rival empires, the fitness that determines survival is seldom correlated with a state’s power over the individual — or its propensity to boast.