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Conceit and Contagion: How the Virus Shocked Europe

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.

 

Bruno Maçães is a nonresident senior fellow at Hudson Institute. His book HISTORY HAS BEGUN : The Birth of a New America will be published in the UK this month and in the US in September. Follow him on Twitter @MacaesBruno

Medical personnel care for patients in an emergency temporary room, set up to ease pressure on the healthcare system, at a hospital in Brescia, Italy, on Friday, March 13th, 2020. Photographer: Francesca Volpi/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Comments

  1. Well written piece, Mr. Macaes, thanks very much for it.

    I was recently speculating about the possibility that a significant amount of the hubris displayed by people living in the west may be owing to an inappropriate faith in “science” as being somehow absolutist and definitive, rather than an effective methodology subject to constant adaptation of assertion.

  2. Ferraresi argued that the fundamental failure in Italy was not a lack of testing …

    “I and many other Italians just did not see the need to change our routines for a threat we could not see.”

    These seem contradictory because the lack of testing is why they could not see it. Testing creates visibility.

  3. This is fascinating because Europe has been dealing with the consequences of events originating elsewhere for years, in the form of Islamic terrorism and rising rape attacks. The elites have indeed been protected from that, because the migrants they so selflessly let in aren’t settled in their neighbourhoods, they end up among their working classes. It’s not their daughters and sons getting raped, so they don’t care. The only emotion they can muster about the situation is offense that anyone might sound Islamophobic.

    A novel virus, on the other hand, doesn’t discriminate based on social class or income. So now they finally feel like they’re vulnerable to foreign problems. If only they had learnt the lesson from 2015 that open borders can pose a real danger.

  4. This is an honest question and one I haven’t seen discussed:

    Europe has imported millions of migrants, many of whom live in poverty. In Italy and other European countries, chinese immigrants in particular make up a substantial portion of the workers–legal immigrants total 320K, but there are more illegal immigrants. See this article in the New Yorker for starters: arthttps://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2018/04/16/the-chinese-workers-who-assemble-designer-bags-in-tuscany

    How has the influx of undocumented migrants into Europe impacted the spread of the virus? This seems to be an elephant no one is talking about, preferring, as here, to point fingers at individual citizens (and weirdly praising china, which imprisoned and threatened whistle blowers and journalists for talking about the virus early on when it could have been contained far more than it was, and who lied about what happened, etc).

    The Asian countries do not have such migrants (to my knowledge)–but the Arab countries do, and they too have been devastated by the virus, something that doesn’t fit in with the author’s narrative of the psychology of complacency. Bahrain, for example, has one of the highest per capita rates in the world. If this is simply about complacent individuals in Western countries not taking things seriously due to their history, why so for the Gulf countries?

    Furthermore, the average age in Italy is a very old 45 (US is 38); combined with the influx of migrants and the poor health service and governance there (my daughter lived there for 4 years and it’s quite ‘second world’ for healthcare; it’s off topic so I won’t give stats but just saying), would explain Italy’s high rate, as opposed to blaming people for not taking it seriously. And Europe’s average age over all is 42.6. That may matter or may not. But additionally, Europe has the world’s highest rate of cigarette smoking in the world, at 28%. That would almost certainly matter.

    I’m saying all this because before going into dubious theories about Europe’s psychology, we might want to look at biological facts and economic realities on the ground. People are understandably reluctant to bring up the possibility of migrants bringing in disease, because it smacks of racism and echoes past racist attacks; but if it’s a reality, one can talk of this without casting racist aspersions. (It is certainly part of Europe’s smug complacency that it thought it could import millions of migrants without any health, cultural, or economic impact, but that’s another story).

  5. I read a lot of stuff on Quillette…some I agree with…some I don’t…some of the things I read make me think that some contributors, and readers (and commenters) are living in some other universe…

    I think it has become increasingly clear, over the past three months, that Covid 19 (or whatever) has become a terrible problem all over the world (as opposed to SARS or MERS) because the government of China really dropped the ball, back in December 2019 (or maybe even November). So, I guess many of us just missed “…how the country is ahead of the West in many dimensions of what constitutes a modern society…”

    Perhaps a “modern society” would have caught the problem sooner, or sealed off Wuhan before one or more million people had fled.

    I guess people from all over the world are not trying to sneak into China because it is so “modern”…or because its border controls are so good (at least in one direction)…

    I think many people, all over the world, are no longer willing to believe (if they ever were) most or all of what they are told, by the government of China…just as was the case with the government of the USSR, back in the 1930’s, or '40’s, or ‘50’…

  6. I strongly doubt Europe’s response to the Coronavirus is as poor or Asia’s as good as the author alleges. And, far from complacency being the problem, the very opposite is more likely. Decades of false alarms and doomsday warnings created a classic “Boy Who Cried Wolf” situation, as Matt Ridley and others have wisely observed. The End has been Nigh so long and so often that people are understandably sceptical of doomsayers even when they might be partly right.

  7. Where China started out operating in the dark dealing with a new virus of unknown danger, Europe and the US had 1-2 months lead time to understand the danger from China’s experience and prepare accordingly. Not only did we squander that lead time, but we were even slower to react. China sealed off an entire metropolis when there were only a few hundred confirmed cases - the US and many European countries are well past that point and still have barely acted.

  8. Probably a cultural difference that plays a big role, but wasn’t touched on in this article is the general attitude we have in the west towards the elderly.

    There was this bit in article about the shut-down in Rome that I found very unsettling:

    She told me that when the government closed the schools and universities the week before, all these young students saw it as a chance to go clubbing all night. They’ve all heard that the virus won’t hurt them much, though it can kill their grandparents.

    I can’t help but wonder if people wouldn’t me more careful if they felt more at risk personally; or if society wouldn’t have taken more precautions (like cancelling the events mentioned) if the majority of the victims were little kids.

  9. China started off denying the existence of the virus and imprisoning doctors who tried to report it.

  10. Scenes from London yesterday:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4NvPAyQgkSM

    Much of the complacency I fear, resides in the diminishing compassion felt in the public consciousness for the elderly. There is a growing trend in the Anglosphere’s cloud where you are just as likely to hear the phrase “Fuck you, Boomer!” as the ubiquitous examples of Godwin’s Law. In the UK, it is not uncommon to hear the sage admonition in retrospect, that if we had only waited a few more years for the Brexit vote, then more of the old codgers would have kicked the bucket to be replaced by woke young things, or at least… words to that effect. How horrible- like the idea that humans are a cancer on the planet causing climate change.

    Perhaps that’s it. Maybe quietly, beneath the surface, there lurks the subconscious sentiment that just maybe if the boomers just hurried up and died, it might just buy us enough time to save the planet and get on with the important working of implementing Socialism. Of course, it’s all bullshit. For those willing to spend dozens of hours trawling through the actual science produced by the IPCC, and discard the pronouncements of the know-nothing political contingent attached thereof, then one will realise that the 1.5°C goal above pre-industrial norms was set there for arbitrary and purely political reasons, perhaps as a means to convince the more gullible amongst society to voluntarily self-sacrifice, whilst bureaucrats and politicians continue to jetset off to vital conferences, puffing up their own importance.

    A realistic goal would have been around 2.5°C. Above all, it’s feasible- costing around $40 to $100 per tonne of mitigation, as opposed to $5,500 per tonne or more, that sticking to a 1.5°C limit would entail. But apart from a marginally greater increase in embedded risks to farming and a slight percentage increase in the damage caused by extreme weather events (with a corresponding reduction in frequency) the effects of climate change by 2100 at 2.5°C will be negligible, and even then, the models don’t take into account the advancing resilience and yields of GM crops, as well as innovations like Israeli drip irrigation.

    Yes, some species will die, and many others will lose up to 50% of their habitats, but let’s face it- we’ve already wiped out over 250,000 known major species, and a couple of thoursand more isn’t going to make a huge difference, especially given that we will likely be able to resurrect a significant number of species by the end of the next century. Granted, sea level rise is likely to be around 0.8m to 2.0m, and this will create difficulties for those in low lying areas, especially if they don’t have the resources to build defences- but people are versatile, we adapt.

    The problem with playing to alarmist tendencies for political gains, is that quite often you find yourself enslaved to the Frankenstein’s monster that you create, coerced into doing it’s bidding against your better judgement. Quite apart from the economic damage already accrued, by spending huge sums and committing to significant subsidies which add to the costs of everything in your society, these narratives have very real and tragic human consequences. In this case, the likelihood that the young in particular will be unheedful of warnings of risks to others. After all, they’ll be alright.

    Perhaps they will quietly warn their own grandmothers to remain locked up in doors, fully provisioned, whilst acting wilfully oblivious to the rest of an ageing population. Perhaps not. Unfortunately, the experience of Italy proves that it’s not just the elderly at risk- anyone over 40 and overweight or a smoker can also end up in a hospital bed, on a respirator and close to death. If the death rates in Europe show a grim reapers return of even 10% or 20% higher than those in Wuhan, then it might imply that complacency was certainly in evidence- but also that possibly something far darker lay lurking, just underneath the surface of our collective indifference towards the old…

  11. Perhaps if health and government officials had taken the issue seriously when China was the sole epicenter of the virus maybe we wouldn’t be reading an article about how Italy/Europe is the epicenter because people didn’t take it seriously.

    In Canada, when the virus was clearly rampant in China, the clear message from government officials was that their concern for anti-Chinese racism took priority over public health concerns.
    Health officials that should have been offering reports based solely on medical best-evidence were freely opining on the dangers of xenophobia and economic impact.

    When trouble hits the people are looking to our leaders for oh, I don’t know, leadership because trouble usually means tough and quite likely unpopular decisions will have to be made.
    Woke-approved decisions obviously don’t inspire confidence.

  12. It depends. If the “science” is politically expedient then it is absolute and definitive. The west gets to chose its science and categorize it as either junk or definitive depending on how many people agree with the science. Welcome to the modern world of woke science.

  13. Though I share the authors disdain for post-modernism, it is too early for such broad commentary. Beware any grand ideological narrative to events that are still unfolding daily. Throughout the ‘quick to opinion’ media right now, which is effectively all of the media, the pandemic is like a Rorschach test for each commenter’s politics. For example, many a leftist is quick to argue that China’s actions demonstrate the superiority of central planning and authoritarianism.

    With a year in retrospect we will be able to view the grand causes and effects of this crisis more intelligently. I think we score a victory over post-modernism if data and reason plays the prominent role in how we look back on this crisis.

  14. This situation gives everyone yet another chance to show their contempt for European civilization. Claire thinks “Helping stop the spread of the virus might be the most important moral imperative of our lifetime.” (Say it out loud in a high, frantic voice).The author of this article agrees and knows exactly who to blame and who needs to learn a new lesson. Why do people want so badly to see themselves living in a special time, with a special mission to make a difference. The virtue signalling is sickeningly repetitive. The ability for people to jump from one calamity to another to show their concern or outrage is amazing. The desire to be one of the healers, thinkers, movers that will make a difference in this world by pushing others to adapt some attitude or take some action is both sad and laughable. Governments can’t solve our problems. Governments create problems. Individuals solve problems or learn to live with them and get on with their lives. And yes, people get sick and die. As they have for millenia.

  15. I’ve never said this of any articles on Quillette, but this article by Bruno Maçães was rather mean spirited, revanchist and wrong on a lot of aspects. Europe has many flaws, as we often talk about here, but the allegations in this article are so grossly unfounded.

    Let’s take it one piece at a time.

    Am I the only one who gets a sense the author is saying “Ha! Look Europeans, you get what you deserve!” from this? Anybody cognisant of history knows Europe has often had genuine dangers coming in from the rest of the world… from the fall of the Roman empire to the siege of Vienna in 1529 to the invasion of Eastern Europe by the USSR. It’s also fair to say the bubonic plague, syphillis, HIV and many other diseases have come from abroad, and one can say this without imputing blame. It’s also fair to say Europe has exported its fair share of conflict and disease, we are all aware of Jared Diamond’s book Guns, Germs and Steel on that.

    As for it being a historical reversal - no, just no. Many part of the world has tried to isolate itself from other parts in history, and to cut off Europe in particular. Just two examples Japan closed its borders to the West in the 1800s, the Qing dynasty tried to seal of imports from the East India Company which lead eventually to the first opium war.

    I don’t deny that Europe has a number of schizophrenic attitudes to cultural identity, but this statement is a load of bollocks. Has the author got proof that having answers to “subtle questions” of cultural identity provides some immunity to the virus? I doubt it. What’s more likely - the outbreak in Europe is due to the large flux of people through the continuent, due to tourism, trade and so on, or due to some psychological weaknesses? Let’s stick to facts here, not Jungian metaphysics.

    Where did the author get mind-reading abilities, I would sure like to learn those tricks. Does the author really claim to know the minds of millions of people? My own take is that from day one, the press in much of Europe has been covering Covid-19 continuously because the minute that Wuhan was placed on lockdown, everyone knew something was up. And once a virus is in the species, we don’t imagine it will care about sticking to just one place.

    Also, anyone who has a memory of a few years ago remembers SARS and Swine Flu - those outbreaks were taken very seriously at the time, but luckily proved less contagious. The idea that European people have been insouciant about this is a nasty lie.

    We admit we didn’t know how bad things could get, but then nobody did. As for the idea of a Spanish man telling you about having "sinned’’ - well, yeah, that’s the basic premise of Catholicism. I wouldn’t read too much in to it. Every plague has the “punishment for our sins” crowd to go along with it.

    Well yeah, have you seen the photos? You think that’s hygienic? What is certainly true is that we have not seen a major new infectious disease outbreak coming out from Europe in the same way in recent history. So yeah, maybe there is something to the idea of being hygienic.

    We can debate the meaning of “progress” and “modern society” - I don’t count a tolitarian dictartorship that puts everyone under an Orwellian social credit score system and that harvests organs of prisoners a particularly desirable direction for society. Sure China has industrialised and is much more economically and militarily powerful than 30 years ago, no doubt about it.

    But the real point here is that nobody I know shrugged with indifference when Wuhan was put on lockdown - in fact, quite the opposite, everyone I know said it meant the Chinese knew that it was deadly serious, and this provoked our media and our institutions to pay very close attention to this.

    I think a lot of people took it seriously. Maybe not everybody, but certainly not “nobody”. As for Spain encouraging people to go join a march of gender equality, well, yeah, it’s a left-wing government, and they would be burned at the stake for not encouraging people to go march along.

    Cherry picking supreme - how about talking about all the conferences, events, and other gatherings that have been cancelled. I know because I’ve cancelled two conferences in Europe already, and that was two weeks ago. It was a hard decision but indeed the right one. Already last week, many employers were recommending we work from home, and universities have been cancelling lectures to teach online instead. So, sorry, but one smurf event doesn’t prove anything.

    So, maybe the authorities have been doing something after all?

    Yeah, same here - people are going out less, avoiding large groups, not shaking hands (although one doesn’t need coronavirus to not want to shake Merkel’s hand…) and all the rest.

    As for the masks, I prefer to follow the current scientific opinion that they don’t really make a difference. This is the view of the WHO, the NHS, the American CDC, and many other health bodies across the world. The point is that a mask doesn’t matter if you get the virus on your hands, go home, go to bed, and rub your eyes in the morning…

    This is the crux of the matter. Let me ask a naive question. Why should we believe China when it claims it has nearly zero new cases each day, despite the existing spread of the disease and the limitations of any quarantine program?

    What is more likely - that the virus is still spreading and the real number of cases in China is now in the millions, and is just not being tested for any longer, or that Chinese superior cultural identity has stopped the virus dead in its tracks?

    I think the numbers out of China are too good to be true, and so they are likely false. I put more faith in a simple exponential growth model for the spread of the disease, which will put the spread in the millions, tens of millions, and eventually hundreds of millions.

    And, there’s historical precedent too - during the Great Famine of the 1960s in China, the CCP was in denial for around two to three years, and this was largely down to manipulation of official statistics concerning the number of people dying of famine. So we would all do well to remember that official statistics don’t carry the same weight when they don’t come from open democracies.

    So I think this paragraph was one of the better ones, because much of the later part of the paragraph has true aspects to it, but I still dispute the claim that this explains in anyway the idea that Europe is now the “official” epicentre. First, I think that China’s official numbers are most likely lies, and I suspect there’s probably several million cases in China. Second, even if Europe does become the epicentre, I don’t think it is down to psychological differences.

    Another aspect is that, as others have mentioned above, other countries have had very high infection rates - Iran among them - and many others do not have health systems that are able to track the infections closely and give reliable testing. So we are probably witnessing huge amounts of underreporting from the rest of the world.

    So maybe, the real “flaw” of the West that is exposed here, is that we have transparent governments that do large amounts of testing for the virus, that tell the truth about the numbers in real time, and that don’t exert totalitarian control over our lives.

    As an interesting further reading, might I recommend Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine, 1958-1962 by Yang Jisheng, as an example of what happens to a society with a government that systematically lies to its populace and to itself, that cooks the books on all official statistics, and that does exert totalitarian control over the lives of its citizens. I think you’ll find the numbers of dead there far outweigh anything we will see in Europe due to Covid-19.

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