The World Health Organization announced last week that Europe is now the epicentre of the new coronavirus epidemic. As the announcement was made, many countries in Africa and Asia were imposing strict restrictions on the arrival of flights and visitors from Europe. It felt like a great historical reversal, one full of irony. Suddenly Europeans were being kept away, they who for so long fortified their borders against all the dangers—real or imagined—arriving from the developing world.
The coronavirus crisis in Europe is, before everything else, a public health crisis, but it also reflects profound changes in the way the continent sees itself. Many of these changes have been taking place for a while. Previous moments such as the debt or refugee crises can be linked with the ongoing epidemic as part of a larger pattern, but the coronavirus has made everything more visible and certainly more tragic. It seems clear to me that the extent of the outbreak in Europe is directly connected to subtle questions of cultural identity, some of which I want to discuss here.
In an interview published yesterday, the director of a hospital in Madrid was unusually forthcoming. Still traumatized by the images of the emergency care unit where he works, Santiago Moreno confessed that “we have sinned from too much confidence.” As he explained it, everyone in Spain thought an epidemic such as the novel coronavirus could spread in a place like China, but not “in a country like ours.” It is simple, really. People in Europe still think of China as a developing country. When news started to arrive of the outbreak in Wuhan, they imagined filthy Chinese markets and hospitals, they thought of the spitting and the lack of doctors, and they trembled. They feared for the Chinese people, not for themselves. This perception explains why, as mainstream opinion lambasted China for mismanaging the outbreak, there was remarkably little concern that the mismanagement could have consequences for Europe and other parts of the developed world. There was effectively no planning or preparation.
I should note here that the very limited number of people who have been publicly alert to the great danger facing the world—and who grew increasingly angry at the lack of seriousness in Europe or America—were almost invariably those with some knowledge of contemporary China. If you know what progress China has made and how the country is now ahead of the West on many dimensions of what constitutes a modern society, you are very unlikely to shrug with indifference when Chinese authorities lock down a major megapolis.
It was serious, but no one in Europe took it seriously. The unbearable lightness of being. A week ago, the Spanish government actively encouraged all Spaniards to go to the streets and join dozens of very large marches for gender equality. When asked about the infection hazard, one minister publicly laughed. The images of those marches have acquired a tangible, pungent horror. You see them against the backdrop of the hundreds of dead since and the laughter, the hugs, and the claps from the marches stand as a lasting monument to human folly.
Spain was not alone in this. Also a week ago, a French municipality organized a large convention of Smurfs, the little blue creatures who live in mushroom-shaped houses in the forest, made famous by a Belgian comic series. According to the mayor of the small town where the convention took place, the people of Landerneau got all their costumes from all the shops in the area. “We figured that a bit of fun would do us all good at the moment.” More recently, after President Macron publicly advised the French to be more cautious in their daily lives, nothing changed and the images of the crowded esplanades in Paris forced his government to coercively enforce their closure.
At the time of the Madrid marches and the Smurf convention, I was returning from a long journey in Asia and could not help noticing the contrast. In India, or Singapore, or Vietnam, people were dramatically changing their behaviour to adapt to the coronavirus. They were going out less, avoiding large groups, taking turns on the elevator and, of course, wearing masks everywhere, even if perhaps they looked less elegant in them. The idea that they would organize a Smurf convention to have a little fun is enough to make you laugh.
All this is well and good. It might be a cultural difference. The problem, of course, is that it probably explains why Europe and not Asia is now the epicentre of epidemic. And it carries a dark foreboding for the future of a continent which seems to be poorly prepared for a world beyond normal times.
The reasons for this cultural difference can, I believe, be explained through history and psychology. The sense of uncertainty and of the fragility of human life that I saw in Asia over the past two months is easy to explain if poverty and disease are still an everyday occurrence or at most two or three generations in the past. Often, that historical experience is reflected in public institutions: The lack of advanced social security and public healthcare systems forces Asians to contemplate in their daily lives the possibility that their world might suddenly collapse. In Europe the general psychology too often reflects the ideology of development, the idea that the most serious threats to individual happiness have been definitively conquered. Why worry about an epidemic if you have excellent public hospitals available more or less for free? What no one considered was that a virus could bring this perfect system to the point of breakdown.
Of course Europeans have their own nightmares and demons. But remember that the tragedy of the World Wars has been interpreted in political terms. They are a reminder of the dangers of nationalism and imperialism. The practical import of our recent history is to confirm our conviction in the rightness of our values, not to force us to doubt ourselves. And even the bloody history of the 20th century in Europe has not changed the fact that we look at the world from what we think is a central position to which others can only aspire. Europeans have been taught by the whole course of modern history to think that they can guide or at least influence the rest of the world while being protected from events originating elsewhere. Would it be wrong to think that the new coronavirus is an event of unparalleled significance precisely because, for the first time, this worldview is shown to be unsustainable?
Everything looks so different now. The collective instinct common in other societies and the excessive precautions taken in response to the dangers of a pandemic and other fantastic threats—these emotions which the developed world used to regard as atavisms of less advanced societies take on a new meaning. Perhaps they are less atavisms than evolutionarily apt instincts that help the human species survive in a hostile environment. The belief that we had conquered nature once and for all? Perhaps premature. The feeling that science can be replaced with postmodernism? A dangerous delusion. The permanent suspicion directed against technology? You get the point.
In a penetrating piece published just two days ago, the Italian journalist Mattia Ferraresi argued that the fundamental failure in Italy was not a lack of testing or slow political action but a social and collective failure: People just did not take the coronavirus seriously enough to even slightly adapt their habits. It is a brave argument. It would be much easier to criticize the government for errors of action or inaction, rather than risk being accused of blaming the victims. But what Ferraresi saw and could not repress was something else: the radical incapacity on the part of the Italian public to adapt to the possibility of a terrible outcome, an outcome discounted by everyone until it was really too late. “I and many other Italians just did not see the need to change our routines for a threat we could not see.” Even though he had accumulated a lot of information on the virus, Mattia writes that he lacked what you might call “moral knowledge.” He knew about the virus, but the issue was not affecting his actions.
The coronavirus has already shown that we need to relearn how to live in the world. It will be a painful lesson.
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