Hubris in the West
By Scott Sumner
There’s been a lot of Monday morning quarterbacking on what went wrong, so let me give some kudos to the Economist magazine. I usually read it right away, but I have fallen behind and recently read an old issue from early March. It’s dated March 7, but the article seems to have been penned around March 4:
The disease is in 85 countries and territories, up from 50 a week earlier. Over 95,000 cases and 3,200 deaths have been recorded. Yet our analysis, based on patterns of travel to and from China, suggests that many countries which have spotted tens of cases have hundreds more circulating undetected (see Graphic detail). Iran, South Korea and Italy are exporting the virus. America has registered 159 cases in 14 states but as of March 1st it had, indefensibly, tested just 472 people when South Korea was testing 10,000 a day. Now that America is looking, it is sure to find scores of infections—and possibly unearth a runaway epidemic.
My data source indicates that the US had 158 cases on March 4. On the same day South Korea had 5621 cases. Today, Korea has 9786 and the US has 174,750. What went wrong? And why didn’t we see this coming? Here’s the Economist, from the same issue:
And in America the response to date has been a shambolic missed opportunity. Shockingly, the worst American bungling has more in common with the catastrophic early stages of the Chinese epidemic—when officials minimised risks and punished truth-tellers, thus letting the disease spread much further and faster than it might have—than with the country’s later co-ordinated control efforts.
This is not Monday morning quarterbacking. At the time of these articles, the US had very few known cases, and I don’t think many people expected us to have 18 times as many as Korea by the end of March. The Economist’s prediction was absolutely right; we blew it.
I’d prefer to not make this post about the US only, and certainly not about the current President. There is plenty of blame to go around. Rather I see this as a broader failure of the West. Europe has been hit even harder than the US. Both political parties were too complacent. Heck, I was too complacent. Even though I was more aware of the risk than most of my neighbors, I did not predict this surge in cases, nor did I sell my stocks.
Back on March 16, a commenter named LC left what I regard as the best comment I’ve read all year:
I certainly didn’t expect things to get so bad in the developed Western democracies. I totally botched the forecast I made to my Chinese friends 2 months ago that our responses would be much better. (To their credit, none of them mocked me and have instead expressed their concerns for my family’s safety.) Looking back, I believe we (the people of democratic developed world), made the following mistakes that blinded us to this:
1. We assumed a free and open society always equals a competent government. While we all agree being free and open carries many benefits and China, if it had been open and free, could have handled things much better early on, we now know a free and open society by itself doesn’t guarantee a competent government. In that respect, governments in East Asia (including Taiwan, Singapore, Korea and Japan) have done a much better job than the Western developed governments.
2. We had too much hubris and pride. We always believed our experts, our scientists and our health systems are the best in the world. Thus, when US demanded Chinese let our CDC experts in, we were affronted when the Chinese initially said no. The press coverage was almost incredulous. How could they not let the “best experts in the world” go and see the situation and give them some guidance? As situation developed and as Donald McNeil from NY Times has since reported, it turns out the Chinese experts are really good and are probably better than our experts. It’s a somber lesson.
3. We under estimated how pragmatic the Chinese can be. During the crisis, the Chinese repurposed some of their idle workers to be temperature checkers, delivery personnel and data gatherers. We should adapt a similar program to put some of the idled workers into more useful jobs (such as building masks and ventilators as you pointed out).
Going forward, I hope we have a thoughtful reflection of our short comings and not make these same mistakes again.
Finally, while the economic damage maybe great in the short term, I believe the important thing that counts is the number of lives we save. If we can keep the global death toll to less than 50K lives lost, it will have been worth it in my opinion.
He’s actually being polite; we now know that the CDC and FDA completely botched the testing program in America. In the West, there’s a tendency to think the whole world revolves around us. We are the standard by which all other societies are judged. If another country has a different attitude toward sex, or religion, or capital punishment, or any other issue, we judge it based on our standards of right and wrong.
Often I agree with our standards. The single worst mistake in this entire crisis was the Wuhan government’s attempt to silence doctors and cover up the epidemic. At least we don’t censor our doctors (although sometimes I wonder.) But LC gets at something important. It really is possible that some other societies are better at doing certain things than we are.
In East Asia today, there is growing prejudice against Westerners, who are seen as arrogant people that engage in highly irresponsible behavior that spreads the virus. I’m not defending that prejudice, any more than I’d defend prejudice against non-whites who behave differently from our customs. But sometimes it’s instructive to visualize things from a foreign perspective, to better understand why not everyone in the world thinks the West is the standard to judge everything by.
People don’t really know who they are until they see themselves through the eyes of another person.
PS. Yesterday I read a short story by Joseph Conrad entitled “An Outpost of Progress”. Conrad understood.