From the outset, two positions stood in sharp opposition to each other. Up to the present day, many physicians and epidemologists maintain, that in historical comparison Covid-19 is a harmless event – in other terms the measures taken against it must be considered excessive. This opinion is supported by the fact that, from a statistical point of view, only older people beyond their sixties show a significantly increased mortality, while the vast majority of younger people do not even notice the infection. The thesis is further confirmed by comparison with the Spanish flu of 1918 and even more so the outbreaks of plague epidemics, which regularly afflicted the world until a century ago and caused mass casualties among entire populations.
Cynics may add to this comparison
the observation that, on statistical average, the increased mortality of the elderly probably does not reduce their lives by more than five years at the most (in individual cases the range of variation may, of course, vary from zero to twenty years).*1* Do we not constantly hear lamentations in all developed countries to the effect that the young generation is hardly able to bear the burden of pensions for a steadily aging population? From this point of view, a corona-related reduction of life expectancy by about half a decade would certainly represent a noticeable gain for the national economy, all the more so as about ninety percent of health care costs are eaten up during the final years of human life.
Cynical considerations of this kind may be suspected in those circles which protest loudly and often violently against the restrictions which, because of Corona, limit personal freedom, the accustomed way of life and economic activities. But up to now they are definitely confined to a minority.
All the more astonishing is the worldwide consensus
in the fight against corona. While the response to the epidemic varied during the first wave in the early 2020s – with Sweden, the Netherlands and Great Britain initially doing nothing about it -, at the present time there seems to exist no state that ignores the disease. Instead they all take more or less harsh measures including a far-reaching freeze of economic activity. In this respect, authoritarian-ruled states such as Russia and China behave just like the liberal states of the West (the only exception being the United States).
This global unity of attitude and behavior is an amazing, an almost unbelievable fact. If it is true that the effects of the disease on mortality are comparatively harmless, since – statistically speaking – they hardly affect the young, working part of the population, how come that all states worldwide are fighting such a minor calamity with utmost determination? Why do they risk the most serious damage to their economies comparable only to the onslaught produced by the Great Depression almost a hundred years ago? Obviously, the fight against the epidemic has turned into a fight against the economy. Unemployment has skyrocketed everywhere, livelihoods are being wiped out, and entire industries such as air traffic have been swept away. Besides, more and more countries are running up astronomical debts, thus placing an even greater burden on the younger generation. In short, the cure for Covid-19 appears to be at least as dangerous, if not more dangerous, than the disease itself.
The answer to this paradox
is not obvious at first glance, because a mere balancing between the disease and the consequences of the medicine used against it does not lead us any further. Indeed, it is not theory that enlightens us about this enigma, but facts – facts globally perceived as unbearable.
China has felt the hideous effects of several epidemics in previous years, while the rest of the world has seen on television screens what happened during the first wave in Lombardy, especially in Bergamo, and subsequently in Spain. It sounds harmless only in theory that old people live on average about five years less. In practice, this amounted to as many elderly people dying within a single month as would otherwise have died spread over the entire five years they would – on average – have lived without the epidemic that suddenly shortened their lives. In other words, mass deaths occur within a very short period of time with hospitals unable to cope with them. And in this context, there is also something to be said about those who put all the blame on an underdeveloped health care system. No country is so wealthy that it can afford a healthcare system that permanently provides all those extremely expensive intensive care beds needed only in emergencies that occur once or twice in a century.
The sight of horror produced by mass dying
awakened people and states. No government (with the exception of that of Donald Trump) wants to appear to the world public so barbaric as to let its elderly people die in the streets in front of overcrowded hospitals. Our age of omnipresent media has its serious weaknesses, but in this case it has also shown an unexpected strength. We witnessed a new humanness reaching from China to Russia and Europe. A common aversion to human suffering led states to accept serious damage to their economy just to avoid being pilloried in front of global public opinion. In this sense, the visitation by Corona has shown us, despite all the damage it has otherwise wrought and continues to bring upon us, a better world that gives cause for hope.
But there is no reason to exaggerate this point
The most incompetent (and dangerous) president the United States ever had to cope with could think of nothing better than to look for a culprit, which, of course, he spotted in China. But science has long since proven that Covid-19 already existed in Italy, Spain, and likewise in the United States towards the end of 2019. It is true that the first mass outbreak of the epidemy occurred in China, where initially it was deliberately covered up. But no sooner had the Chinese state recognized the real danger than it combated the invisible enemy with utmost efforts and efficiency within a very short time. From then on, the Chinese government succeeded in keeping no less than a fifth of mankind – a population of 1.4 billion – practically free of corona. At present and on a daily basis, there are seldom more than about twenty cases registered in the whole country, most of them imported from outside. The Chinese can live a normal life, the economy is booming and growing. Compared to the rest of the world and its futile efforts to cope with the crisis, this is nothing less than a miracle.
Are we allowed to say something good about China,
when its population is monitored by the state and entire minorities such as the Uyghurs disappear into concentration camps? Or put in a more general way, is it permissible to speak in positive terms about people, states or events when these must be judged as bad in many other respects?
In my opinion, there is only one correct answer to this question, namely an emphatic “yes.” Democracy only functions if one praises one’s political opponent for doing the right thing just as much as one rebukes him for everything one considers wrong. Nothing is more destructive than a division into friend and foe, where some are considered the incarnation of good while others are thought to inhabit the realm of evil. Just like a functioning democracy, the world community as a whole will only live in peaceful coexistence after we abandon painting the world in black-and-white.
When comparing how authoritarian China and freedom-loving US behave towards corona, it seems evident that in the first case we must speak of a miracle of scientifically targeted measures. China has suffered a minimum number of deaths, and even those only during the first three months of the epidemic. In contrast, the American approach under Donald Trump – if one can speak of any approach at all – is tantamount to total failure. Meanwhile, the U.S. has suffered more deaths due to Corona than during World War II (about 300,000).
The situation is even more paradoxical. The United States can still boast of being home to some of the world’s best scientists especially in the field of epidemiology; in this respect they are certainly superior to China. Yet China has followed their advice exactly, while Trump and his partisan politicians were not able or even willing to do so. On the contrary, the US administration was concerned with muzzling the scientists.
Command or freedom?
At this point, it should, of course, be noted that for many, the Chinese miracle is not a miracle at all. This explains why, in the West, neither politicians nor published opinion regard China as an astonishing example – let alone one they recommend for imitation. It rather seems to be a foregone conclusion how to depreciate China’s success and embellish our own failure. There, we are dealing with a centrally controlled command structure, whereas in Western countries, we are restrained by the demands of freedom. That is why we should not be surprised that Western countries, with their constitutionally guaranteed respect for the rights of their citizens, can and will never impose such drastic measures. This statement usually ends all discussion on China.
I consider this argumentation not only misleading but wrong, although it is beyond doubt that people in the West enjoy far greater freedom and far more rights than in China. But this statement though correct disregards a point of great importance. Every state, including the states of the West, sacrifices the liberties of its citizens when the welfare of all is at stake. For this is precisely the task of any goverment: to enforce the interests of all against special interests and, if necessary, to protect against them if they harm the common good. When a new transport link like motor- or railway is to be established or mineral resources are found in private property, the state naturally claims a superior right to limit or even completely suspend the subordinate rights of individual citizens in view of the common good. It proceeds in a similar way when evacuating thousands of citizens – by force if necessary -, if somewhere a bomb left over from the last war must be defused. For the common good, governments also prevent us from putting private currencies into circulation or to enact special laws on parts of the national territory. In the case of an enemy attack with electronic, chemical, bacterial or other weapons, all states suspend most civil liberties anyway. And it is not only the government which encroaches on personal freedom, the same is even done by private corporations without any regard for the general welfare when they sacrifice for their own interests and against the will of concerned citizens untouched landscapes, intact biotopes etc.
In other words, the state – any state – sacrifices special interests and individual liberties not only when common welfare is at stake, but often enough it condones such encroachment even when powerful special interests enforce it against the general interest.
Along with wars, epidemics are among the most serious threats to general welfare. For this reason, they justify far-reaching encroachments on the civil liberties of citizens – provided that they are limited in time and that the resulting benefit far outweighs the temporary harm.
Corona provides a classic example of the benefits
of consistent rule enforcement, as demonstrated by China with resounding success. This success was by no means the result of arbitrary action, but of strict adherence to scientific findings. Science leaves no doubt about the effectiveness of decisive action with regard to pandemics. After completely isolating for three weeks all inhabitants of a pandemic stricken area (e.g., a large city like Wuhan with several million people), the disease will be averted for good. The symptomless infected will no longer be contagious, the symptomatic ones will have been delivered to normal or field hospitals under surveillance, and less than one percent of the infected will have died. If isolation did not succeed one hundred percent, then constant testing will assure that each new case will be tracked for all its contacts – a method made much easier by the fact that people are only allowed to move freely if their cell phone has an app that accurately records their movements and encounters during that time.
This is the scientifically sanctioned way adopted by China. For almost three months, the country froze the life of an entire city (launching huge provisional sickbay at the same time). During this time, it imposed great restrictions on its people, but what would have been the alternative? Given its population of almost one and a half billion, it would otherwise have suffered at least three times as many casualties as the United States States and would be involved in a permanent fight against Corona – as the rest of the world is to this day. Of course, the imposed surveillance by a cell phone app is a massive invasion of citizens’ privacy, but would anybody seriously argue that such a temporary interference constitutes a greater violation of human rights than the deaths of 300,000 citizens dying in agony in the United States alone?
Why did the West prove so shamefully inept
in its fight against Corona? Is the reason to be found in the love of freedom of Western citizens, who are so attached to it that they do not brook the slightest restriction? That is what propaganda wants us to believe, but I am afraid that this is nothing more than a rather hypocritical self-deception. As I just tried to show, even in Western democracies liberties are abrogated in many different ways – sometimes inevitably, if that is done for the common good, but often arbitrarily, e.g. for powerful special interests.
No, the real reason for the failure of Western states is unfortunately quite different: the fear of governments of their citizens. In theory, a democratically elected leadership could impose the same drastic measures as China for a limited period of time if this can be justified as necessary for the common good. But it does not dare to do so because its fear of an opposition vehemently protesting against them. And this fear is normally stronger than sound reason, which would lead it to follow the advice of scientific experts. On many issues, especially when it comes to social justice and shaping the future, science can tell us little because values play a decisive role. But in disease control science can provide rules whose effectiveness is beyond doubt. Anybody can see the proof in the great example of China and the glaring failure of the West.
*1* The figure of an average of five years of reduced life expectancy is a mere estimate. Based on the available data, the actual value could be calculated precisely. However, since a difference of two or three years is irrelevant for the argument, I have refrained from doing so.