Covid and the Brittle West

Nimbleness, not collectivism, explains Asian democracies’ success.
Subscriber Only
Sign in or Subscribe Now for audio version

The state of exception during the pandemic was not an inevitability. It became an inevitable political reality in those countries that proved unable to take control of events. When rules and routines are inflexibly followed, a moment arrives when they have to be forcefully abandoned. But this pattern did not hold everywhere. More agile states were able to adapt their practices and procedures in response to the pandemic threat. A state of exception never became necessary, because these adaptations were willingly embraced, and in some democracies they were politically legitimate and even popular.

One of the chief problems with the way most Western democracies reacted to the pandemic was that they fell back upon their routine practices and principles. The emergency spurred these nations to action, but only to the kind of action they were used to. For example, the commitment to an abstract notion of equality led to policy measures that often seemed more concerned with treating different cases equally than with actually stopping the spread of the disease. Hence the general but loose lockdowns, the reluctance to use digital contact tracing, and the absurd focus on restricting all those activities that were essentially voluntary and often wholly benign. Going to the beach was banned in many places, while public transportation continued to function almost normally. It was public transit that actually posed the much greater danger — beaches were perhaps the safest places one could find. Societies founded on personal choice wanted to fight the pandemic in those areas where personal choice was most at play. It was as if they were telling their own citizens: we can just wish this pandemic away. Make a free choice to end the pandemic. Every other choice was seen as a threat. But personal choice was not the right tool, as it turned out. Collective action would have worked better.

Similarly, the democratic commitment to rule-based rather than personal power often meant that spuriously precise guidelines were blindly imposed and followed, and that clarity and uniformity were preferred to actual results.

Our need to fully justify action by politicians and public officials — a basic requirement of the rule of law — tended to reduce their ability to make decisions in a moment of emergency, when full justification by data, let alone publicly available knowledge, is impossible. Younger democracies such as Taiwan and South Korea did much better, not because of a greater sense of collectivism in these societies, but because their rules and procedures are less fixed, less ossified and could therefore be adapted to new circumstances. It was not Confucianism that saved these Asian countries, but rather a kind of modernity that we have lost in the West.

How then should nations adapt and respond to emergencies like pandemics? First, public authorities must stay ahead of the curve. There is no alternative to making risky projections about the future and framing public policy in response to those projections. As Nicholas Christakis argued in the early days of the pandemic, if a school is prepared to close in a reactive fashion once there is an outbreak in the school, why not close a little earlier and actually get the benefit of preventing outbreaks? After all, if there is community transmission near the school, it is sure to reach the school before too long. Waiting to implement measures reactively carries all the same burdens as responding proactively, but with far fewer benefits. During the following year, authorities in Western democracies never understood this basic point, insisting on reacting to what they called “the data,” which invariably meant data from the past that was useless by the time it was available. In retrospect, speed was the most significant factor in determining national pandemic outcomes. Either you regard a virus as an active agent and try to be the first mover, or you regard it as passive material for your plans. The pandemic exposed how misguided the latter philosophy truly was.

The second aspect of adaptively responding to emergencies concerns the complex reactions of society as a whole. When I visited Singapore in February 2020, significant changes were already underway in response to the virus. People kept their distance from each other. You might avoid meeting strangers, even on romantic occasions. Large gatherings were postponed to a more propitious time. Elevators were less full. The social organism was alive, changing and adapting in response to a new environment.

We must come to terms with the fact that we already live in something of a state of exception. Our natural environment remains dangerous and unpredictable, in ways that perhaps we had forgotten in the West. But in a different sense, this is no state of exception at all but rather the natural state of societies that have preserved their ability to change and adapt to new situations.

Header image: Singapore, Northpoint City shopping mall, June 28, 2020 / Shutterstock

Beyond “science says”

The New Atlantis is building a culture in which science and technology work for, not on, human beings.