Coronavirus and the Politics of Fear

Time for our Coronavirus Global Panic Update. Twenty seconds ago, I checked the latest official totals of confirmed cases and deaths here in Korea: 3,150/17. That works out to a mortality rate of just over 0.5%, which means yet another drop in the rate, as the numbers here come ever-closer into line with typical flu death numbers.

Meanwhile, Donald Trump has publicly told Americans that this virus does not warrant mass alarm and economic meltdown, for which position he is being vilified by both progressives, who of course are tribally triggered to criticize everything Republicans do, and anti-Trump conservatives (my friends), who are sadly sliding all too frequently into a tribal trap of their own these days, and thus have become far too quick to find ways to blame Trump even for non-political problems. (There are plenty of legitimate political problems for which to blame him; we don’t need to become paranoid and start imagining Trumpkins under every bed.)

Over the past few days, I have been monitoring, and occasionally joining, the online discussion among (mostly) anti-Trump conservatives (i.e., non-cultists) regarding coronavirus and Trump’s press conference on the subject. It has become disturbingly obvious that even relatively rational people, highly resistant to media hype and social pressures of all kinds, are finding it difficult to separate fact from political fiction on this particular issue. Perhaps this is due to our age’s materialistic atomism, which causes even the more reasonable among us to view life in narrowly self-interested and physical terms, and hence to weaken on matters of virtue and principle at the first hint of a slight risk to our own material well-being. In any case, the trajectory is disturbing, so I would like to take a moment to address some of it, in the form of a brief “Q & A” session, which I choose to frame as a challenge to my position, from the perspective of someone caught up in this media alarmism about the coronavirus-19 pandemic.

1. Why do you keep harping on South Korea’s relatively low mortality rate, which is dramatically lower that the global average, and therefore an anomalous outlier, rather than representative? Don’t you think your reliance on that uniquely low Korean rate is a little too convenient for your argument?

I see the anomaly. I also see that Korea is almost the only country (other than China, which lies) that has a large enough number of confirmed cases, based on a very well-established testing procedure and no government attempts to hide the true numbers, to start to see a real trend with regard to mortality. And it has the lowest mortality rate of all the countries which currently have fatal cases of the illness — lower almost every day, in fact. This matters, because using numbers carelessly, i.e., without context, fosters one of those situations in which “facts lie.”

Here is what I mean by “without context” in this case: As I have said repeatedly, we just don’t know what the mortality rate will finally be, because the situation is ongoing, and we have no idea how many people have been infected. It is almost certain, however, for the reasons I have previously explained, that the final mortality rate will be lower than the numbers we’re seeing now, based on our currently limited numbers of identified cases.

Keep in mind that, as long as we are still talking only about tested and verified cases, the percentages will always skew toward high death rates, since the people most likely to get tested in the first place are those with serious symptoms, or vulnerable individuals in areas known to have been exposed to the virus, such as elderly patients at hospitals.

As for the Korean mortality rate, it is an international outlier in a very useful way, statistically, for this precise reason: Unlike the other nations hit with this virus so far, Korean authorities, having isolated the source of most of our cases (a church in Daegu), have set about testing very widely among that population base. This means they are testing people who show no major symptoms, unlike the other countries with smaller (or state-denied) outbreaks, where it is likely that only symptomatic patients are being tested.

Thus, in Korea, there are more cases of the virus being found and diagnosed among those not showing signs of illness. This makes the Korean numbers slightly more representative of typical flu numbers, in which of course the majority of those infected with a given virus never become significantly ill.

So you see, the Korean case is instructive, if we are trying to see how serious this virus really is, precisely because its mortality rate seems lower — once we understand why it is lower.

2. Isn’t it dangerous to downplay the seriousness of this outbreak when it has already caused many deaths and significant economic harm, and is sure to cause more of each in the coming weeks?

I am not downplaying anything, nor am I being callous about the people who have died of this virus, or any other flu for that matter. I am not disregarding the real cases of serious illness or death. I am trying, rather, to look at the whole picture independently of the popular hype machine, as I think is highly advisable in all issues, and at all times.

As I live in the democratic country whose economy has been hardest hit by this in real practical terms, no one has to tell me about the economic impact. My own life, and that of my students and friends, is being affected by it as we speak. I am watching small businesses close, or lay off workers. I am seeing factories in my own city that cannot operate due to a lack of parts from China. I am watching prices rise at the supermarkets due to shipping delays.

I am fully aware of the economic stress, and even hardship, this is causing; but I am also aware that some of the damage is exacerbated by the media’s willingness (not to say eagerness) to foster mass panic, and the political opposition parties’ desire to score political points by blaming the current president, which in turn requires promoting the most dire view of the “crisis.” I am therefore warning anyone who cares to listen, including my American friends, not to follow this same alarmist path and cause similarly unnecessary harm in your own country, beyond whatever understandable damage may be done by the contingencies of the virus itself, which can affect an economy as any bad flu outbreak can do.

3. You keep saying “it’s just a bad flu,” and suggesting that people are overreacting or overhyping it. But isn’t that avoiding the seriousness of the pandemic, or belittling the real suffering, and even death, that it is causing?

I live in the new epicenter of this thing, Korea. Yes, it is a bad flu virus. And yes, people are becoming paralyzed by it, in the sense of obsessing about this virus “pandemic” (a word that sounds scary to us laymen, but really just means a wide-ranging epidemic, which in turn is just a viral outbreak of any kind) in ways that are beginning to have unnecessarily severe effects on national economies, and national psyches as well, as I can attest from the Korean example.

Precautions are good. Panic is bad. Cautious realism is helpful. Precipitate demands for governments to “take extraordinary measures” are not helpful.

4. But don’t political leaders have a responsibility to do something about such threats, and to protect their people? And may they not therefore be held accountable when they fail to protect them?

Leaders certainly do have a responsibility to protect their populations against real threats of the sort that can be prevented by government. But the measures used must be proportional to the nature of the given threat. And in a representative republic, these leaders — not to mention their populations — should always and instinctively lean toward erring on the side of government restraint, which is the way of a free people. That is, “government action” in this arena will almost necessarily involve tiptoeing along the boundaries of legitimate, constitutionally-allowable state authority, which means unreflective moves, however high-minded their motives, might involve stepping into the realm of tyrannical government overreach.

In addition, it is always easy to point at things that were not done and say, “If only the government had done that, everything would be okay now,” as though we could ever know that for certain. And as if “that” would have been an acceptable course of action at the time, in the context in which the decision had to be made.

To take the Korean example: Moon Jae-in’s political opponents are screaming that he ought to have cut off all travel from China immediately, or taken other such extreme measures, thus implying that somehow he is responsible for the spread of the virus here. But given that the large religious group that is the source of most of the Korean cases had traveled to and from Wuhan, China, before anyone knew there was a new coronavirus, this criticism is both illogical and an extremely careless act of political grandstanding from Korea’s supposedly “conservative” opposition — grandstanding in the name of broader government authority over both the economic and personal spheres of Korean life.

It seems to me that historically, on balance, the formerly freedom-loving modern world has certainly made far more mistakes on the side of granting governments excessive powers — which were never rescinded, or which set dangerous precedents — than on the side of under-responding to a problem in the name of preserving liberty. For my part, I prefer the latter kind of error, and the kind of government prone to making it.

5. But by shrugging off the whole thing as U.S. media hype, isn’t Trump telling Americans to be careless about a serious concern?

In the American case, the controversy and criticism are not even related to any government action (or inaction), but are merely a response to Trump’s tone in speaking publicly about the virus. In other words, the American “debate” about this issue is yet more of the usual death march that is U.S. politics at the end of the great republic — politics as TV show.

“He didn’t project enough concern.” “He really stuck it to the Democrats.” “He was flippant about the crisis.” “He called out the media hype.” None of this has anything to do with actual U.S. Government measures being taken to deal with the likely spread of the virus, or with finding a vaccine. It is all about optics, with each of the usual tribes interpreting those optics exactly as they would be expected to do, according to their respective “sides” in the pseudo-debate. Nothing could be more belittling of real suffering and illness than the reduction of a public health concern to the banal vectors and rah-rah-ism of party politics.

As for Trump’s tone, such as it is, I did write in the hours before his press conference on the virus that I hoped he would say more or less what I have been saying, namely that this is a very bad flu, but that mass hysteria is neither helpful nor appropriate to the situation. I did not actually listen to his remarks in that press conference, because you only live once, and I prefer to minimize the minutes of my earthly existence spent on Trump’s moronic voice.

Believe me, I am not talking about, or praising, Donald Trump here, but I must say that people of past, morally healthier, eras of human history used to think a large part of statesmanship, especially in an ostensibly free republic, was about projecting calm strength in the face of challenges, rather than trying to prove one’s “empathy” or to project “deep concern” by rhetorically succumbing to, and therefore heightening, public anxiety.

People are much too sanguine these days about begging the government to empathize and take care of them. We could do with a few world leaders right now who could take the old-fashioned statesmanlike approach: “It’s a bad flu virus, my friends. We’ll take precautions, but let’s take care of each other, keep our heads, and not get swept up in irrational fears or worry ourselves into financial instability and draconian regulations over a flu. We’ve handled much worse than this, and so we’ll handle this.”

6. Don’t you stand to look stupid if the worst-case scenario some are projecting for this coronavirus should come true?

Sure, just as I will “look stupid” if it turns out Donald Trump is the greatest American president, or socialism the perfect system of government, or the philosophic life a big waste of time. I don’t think any of those things will turn out to be the case, but of course human reason is fallible. We all take chances every time we get out of bed in the morning, don’t we? And yet if we don’t get out of bed and make the most of our innate abilities, following the best reasoning we can muster, then we cannot live at all.

It is of course true that we don’t know exactly how this virus will finally turn out. But this uncertainty in itself ought to provide grounds for looking at the thing soberly, rather than leaping wildly onto a “sky is falling” bandwagon. So far, a careful examination of the whole picture makes it look like what I’m calling it, a bad flu, and highly contagious, such that, as with any virus outbreak, we would all do best to be careful about public hygiene and conscientious about our neighbors — without losing our backbone or forsaking our better angels.

I merely wish so many people were not getting caught up in their worst instincts — tribal blaming, alarmism, dire predictions, political short-sightedness — over this illness. For those attacking Trump, Moon, or any other leader on the grounds that he “isn’t doing enough,” or isn’t projecting enough “compassion” (i.e., alarm), I say get ahold of yourselves and start thinking like independent adults again. This isn’t primarily a political issue, or at least certainly not yet — unless you are Chinese or Iranian.

7. This is all easy for you to say, since you don’t have the virus. Don’t you care about people?

I live in a city with about twenty known cases of this virus so far, including at least one who is known to have visited a building at my university a week ago, while already infected. Public attractions and offices in my neighborhood are currently closed indefinitely, and the other day I watched four men in hazmat suits, with disinfectant sprayers, coming out of a city museum I walk past twice a day, three blocks from my home. I know people personally who are losing significant hours (i.e., income) at their jobs right now, and some at risk of losing jobs outright, over the economic and social effects of this outbreak. And that’s after just two weeks.

Believe me, I take it seriously, and I get it. But I also get the danger of succumbing to fear and blame and hatred and outraged (or mock-outraged) cries of “Do something!” when the circumstances simply do not warrant such extremes.

In fact, no circumstances warrant such extremes. Reason and moderation are supposed to be our bulwarks against such passionate reactions, assuming we are still worthy of our birthright as free and self-governing individuals.

(Dear Readers: I promise to keep you up to date on the situation here at the heart of the action over the coming days. But I also promise, both to you and to myself, not to let this “crisis” overwhelm other, more essential interests and concerns here in Limbo.)

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