Coronavirus IV — Two Worlds
The Plumber and the Electrician
My own stats are quite revealing: For every one time you call the electrician, you call the plumber ten!
In almost every country I’ve traveled to, in most hotels, apartments, houses I’ve stayed in and called home for weeks or months, the plumber was the one professional who was needed the most. Blocked pipes, dirty sink water, damp floors, and a myriad of leaking ceilings, toilets, and bathtubs have been the constant “background noise” of my life. Whenever I saw a person in overalls walking in a hotel corridor, whenever I heard banging on a nearby wall or saw a van arriving at a neighbor’s house late in the evening, I knew the plumber had been called for yet another special mission.
Here we are, five thousand years after the Sumerians and Egyptians created the first latrines and copper pipes to distribute water, two thousand years after the Romans created extremely sophisticated indoor plumbing systems, aqueducts, and baths, and we are still struggling with the same problems they did! Thousands of years of engineering and knowhow have not been sufficient to master all the nuisances of running water. Water, behaving as a wild animal, seems to resist all harnessing.
Nothing highlights this “resistance of water” better than the way … electricity behaves. Although the electric current was discovered only two centuries ago and was finally distributed to most houses around the world less than one century ago, we have mastered it so well that we rarely, if ever, have to deal with it. We just plug cords into outlets, switch buttons on and off, and change the occasional light bulb. Nice, simple, clean. But why do we have so many water leaks, but no electrical leaks? And why does the plumber leave a big mess behind, while the electrician is done in a few minutes, leaving all nice and clean in his wake?
An easy answer might be that plumbing is by its nature a messy business, while electricity is just a different animal involving different technology that just happens to be cleaner. Well, as it happens, it ended up being clean, nice and neat, with no dirt and leaks. But it wasn’t so in the beginning. Thousands of people died from “leaked electricity” — electrocution — a century ago. Many more also died from fires that were started by poor wiring or by faulty installations. At the initial stages of the invention, electrical systems were even messier, and of course way more dangerous, than plumbing systems.
So, here’s the crux: When there’s an electric leak, we get electrocuted and die, but not when there’s a water leak. Electricity distribution is too dangerous to fail. Therefore, we had to get it right from the very beginning. As soon as the first accidental deaths and fires started making headlines a century ago, the government stepped in and created strict rules and regulations for handling electric devices. Gradually all governments centralized the distribution of electricity and created the famous electrical grids — the sophisticated interconnected networks of power stations and substations, transmission lines, and customers.
This analogy between the plumber and electrician has been playing in my mind for some time now. Recently, I realized that it is the perfect symbol of what is going on in the world right now. In a sense, it also condenses and simplifies my previous writings about the pandemic. Simply put:
The West has not realized that the handling of the pandemic is too dangerous to fail!
We have treated the virus as if it were water: If there’s a leak, we’ll fix it; if a pipe bursts and floods the room, we’ll break the floor; let’s call the plumber after we return from our holidays. Worse still, we have dealt with the virus as we deal with plumbing problems: with a lightness, procrastination, and hope that the dripping tub will stop on its own. And because of that, the house of the West is now one big plumbing mess: The ceiling is opened to find the leak, but it drips from the sidewall; a hole is plugged in the sewage pipe, but the dirt ends up in the kitchen. So, this house experiences a plumbing catastrophe, but at the same time the flooded electricity supply is about to set everything on fire — so it is in a big electricity disaster too. We have the plumbing mess and the electric shocks of a failed electric installation simultaneously. We have the worst of water and the worst of electricity.
We have misread, miscalculated, mismanaged. For the coronavirus is not water — it is a dangerous electric current. The East knew this from the very beginning. The countries of the Asia-Pacific have shown that aiming for “zerocovid” (#zerocovid) is not only feasible but the best possible policy for curbing the pandemic and returning to normality faster than by all other means. But the West was not paying any attention. Many in the West even mocked the Asians initially … for being so scared of little innocuous “water leaks.” But today, almost a year into the pandemic, we can all see everything much clearer: They had it right and we had it wrong. The Asians understood the handling of the virus was too dangerous to fail.
Society and Freedom
Yet when the East started acting with the utmost responsibility appropriate “to handling electricity” by enforcing strict rules and regulations, creating centralized responses — which in effect was the equivalent of the centralized electrical grid all countries have to distribute and manage their electrical supply — and limiting the freedom of their citizens in order to protect them, many in the West considered these measures excessive and unnecessary. Some attributed them to the East Asian “autocratic mentality” even though many countries that implemented them — Taiwan, South Korea, Japan, etc. — are as democratic as those in the West and a few, such as New Zealand and Australia, although located in the East, are culturally Western and self-identify as Westerners. Because our generation in the West has not lived through a major war or a pandemic, many, especially the young, have found their governments’ actions to be paternalistic, and the minor and temporary curtailment of their freedoms (to gather, party, go to the movies, etc.) unacceptable. Some are even claiming that the West is using the pandemic as an excuse to move towards a “new Orwellian world order.” A number of people and groups in the West consider the full or partial lockdowns as the prelude to such a plan, and dozens of conspiracy theories have popped up.
Yet the truth is that throughout history, governments have always curtailed our freedoms during wars, natural catastrophes, and epidemics. We need not examine here what happened during wars. It is sufficient to see what happened during the 1918–19 Spanish Flu pandemic. Then, like now, many countries in Europe and many states in the US shut down schools, churches, theaters, and prohibited public gatherings. Some measures were even stricter than those today: Not only did many cities around the world make wearing masks mandatory but they also imposed heavy fines and even imprisonment on those who failed to cover their faces. Even the mayor of San Francisco who failed to wear a mask at a boxing match was fined with the then astronomical amount of $50. Sneezing or coughing without a mask was a serious offence. But, then as now, some protested to the wearing of masks (they called them “mask slackers”), and in San Francisco, there was even an Anti-Mask League.
But again, then as now, the cities that curtailed their citizens’ freedoms first, such as St. Louis, did much better than those that delayed, such as Philadelphia. And those cities that hurried to remove those measures suffered second waves, like many countries suffering a similar fate today. Santayana’s famous phrase “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” couldn’t be more pertinent. It is shocking to realize how little we have learned from past pandemics, especially the Spanish Flu, and how we are now repeating the same exact mistakes a century later.
The “curtailing of freedoms,” then and now, is not actually the negative thing some people in the West portray it to be. It is the exact same curtailing of freedoms we experience in our society in normal times by virtue of the fact that we are part of and live in a human society! We are not free to speed at 200 km/hr on the highway, or not stop at a red light, or play drums in the middle of the night in our apartment, and of course we are not free to beat up people when they make us angry, or steal, or kill. Society, through laws and government regulations, curtails our freedoms for the benefit of all. The collective well-being takes precedence over the well-being (or the “freedom” or the whims) of the individual. And when a pandemic rages, governments must act for the welfare of the entire society. Furthermore, as Asian governments have proven, all of last year’s restrictions to freedom only lasted for a short while. As soon as they got rid of the virus, all freedoms were restored. China, Vietnam, New Zealand, and others, which enforced the strictest of lockdowns in the beginning of the pandemic, are back to normal again, while countries like Taiwan and South Korea avoided country-wide lockdowns because their governments reacted promptly by using advanced contact-tracing systems coupled with isolation of the infected — again, measures that invaded privacy and curtailed freedom. But the citizens of these countries welcomed such measures without protest because they knew they were sacrificing some of their rights in the short term for something much more valuable and long-lasting: saving lives and minimizing suffering.
I would dare say that the proper and decisive curtailing of freedoms at a moment of crisis is not an indication of a “totalitarian mentality” but an indication of wise and strong governance. The political systems of such countries as China, Taiwan, Vietnam, South Korea, New Zealand, and Australia are incredibly diverse. Yet by acting promptly and decisively to curtail the freedoms of their citizens for a short period of time, they ended up restoring those freedoms faster than did all countries whose governments tried to avoid such curtailment because of ignorance, or indecisiveness, or fear of being unpopular. As the South Korean philosopher Byung-Chul Han wrote in a recent essay explaining why the East has succeeded while the West has failed, “The paradox of the pandemic is that one ends up having more freedom if one voluntarily imposes restrictions on oneself.”
The brief curtailments of freedom also protected the economies of the East. Contrary to a false narrative in the West that lockdowns and other restrictions destroy the economy, the countries of the East have proven to the world that strict measures for a short time are better than lukewarm measures dragging on for months — which is the strategy most Western countries have employed. As Tomas Pueyo, who has written a series of enlightening articles about the pandemic, has said, “The lockdowns weren’t the cause of the economic downturn. The coronavirus was. They came together, so people mix them. But you can’t go back to the previous economy by reopening businesses and wishing the virus away.” It is interesting that this phenomenon was also observed a century ago: A recent study about the Spanish Flu pandemic has shown that cities that implemented strict measures early in the pandemic produced significantly higher rates of growth in manufacturing output and employment from 1919 to 1923 than did those that delayed or took lighter measures. Unfortunately, most Western countries are still sending hundreds of thousands of their citizens to an early grave, while simultaneously destroying their economies … in an effort to save their economies. Again: the West ended up experiencing the worst of water and the worst of electricity.
But why is the West behaving so foolishly? Why is there so much resistance from governments to implementing strict measures for a short time to curb the pandemic? Or why, after they took some belated strict measures last spring, have governments rushed to return to normality as if the danger were over (or as if the measures were unbearable to their citizens)? And why are there still so many people in the West, especially young people, protesting online and on the streets about wearing masks and similar common sense health measures?
Well, apart from our inability to learn from the past and from the recent success of the East (i.e., our ignorance and arrogance!), there is a deeper reason that may help us answer all of the above questions. It has to do with a defining, ingrained trait of Western culture.
Individualism and Collectivism
There is a marked difference in core cultural values between Western and Eastern cultures: The West is individualistic; the East is collectivist. Individualistic cultures are those that give precedence to the needs of the individual over the needs of society. Collectivist cultures are those that prioritize the greater good of society over the needs of the individual. It is not easy to pinpoint exactly when and how East and West ended up being so different in this respect. In Selfie — How the West Became Self-Obsessed, Will Stor, citing various studies and thinkers, claims that this goes back to the West’s Ancient Greek roots — rationalism, formal logic, hero culture, etc. — and the East’s Confucian foundations — the emphasis on social harmony and mutual respect. As he put it, “For the defendants of Confucius, reality is not a collection of individual objects but a field of interconnected forces.” And quoting Richard Nisbett, a social anthropologist:
It isn’t that Easterners versus Westerners think about the world differently. They’re literally seeing a different world. We’ve found that if you show people pictures for three seconds, the Westerners will look all over its main object and only occasionally make eye movements that drift out to the context. The Chinese are looking constantly back and forth between the objects and the context.
Seeing a different world, they therefore act differently. In the East, wearing a mask means protecting the others with whom you come in contact from catching the virus in case you happen to have it. It means thinking of the general good. The mask tells others that you are thinking about them, so everybody wears one. In the West, for many, wearing a mask has become a symbol of government oppression and the violation of personal freedom. Many consider that the mask tells others that its wearer has succumbed to the demands of authority! Therefore, many choose not to wear it to make a personal statement of freedom and individual assertiveness. In the East, staying at home during a lockdown and avoiding big gatherings means behaving in a socially responsible manner to curb the spread of the virus. In the West, lockdowns have become, for many, an unacceptable expansion of state authority and an unnecessary curtailment of personal freedom.
The pandemic shows us that the West has actually gone beyond individualism: It has become self-absorbed and narcissistic. In The Narcissism Epidemic, psychologists Twenge and Campbell say that the young generations in the US live in an “Age of Entitlement,” which they define as “the pervasive belief that one deserves special treatment, success, and more material things … You live in a fantasy in which the world owes you more than you contribute.” The authors say that there is an overdose of self-esteem and self-admiration, and that one of the chief causes for this is parents who have gone overboard in spoiling their children, making them feel “special” by overpraising them. A perfect example that summarizes this self-absorption in the West is an incident described in the same book: An SUV parked in a no-parking zone facing in the wrong direction and blocking a stop sign. The SUV had a bumper sticker that said “I ♡ ME.”
I think that at the root of this extreme individualism, self-absorption, and narcissism lies something more subtle that starts at a very young age and which guides most people’s lives in the West:
It is our unwillingness to delay gratification.
This simple concept is central to our current situation. The American psychiatrist Scott Peck, in his now classic book The Road Less Traveled, considers the ability to delay gratification a prerequisite to the psychological well-being of a person. We may now extend the principle to include society as a whole. He defines it as follows:
Delaying gratification is a process of scheduling the pain and pleasure of life in such a way as to enhance the pleasure by meeting and experiencing the pain first and getting it over with. It is the only decent way to live.
Ever since the famous Stanford Marshmallow Experiment in 1972, which showed that children who were able to delay gratification (eating two marshmallows later rather than eating one immediately) were more successful later on in life, we know that learning discipline and self-control from a young age is important to a healthy upbringing. Relating this to the current reaction to the pandemic, we can see that Western societies have shown a great reluctance towards “meeting and experiencing the pain first and getting it over with.” Lockdowns, wearing masks, keeping distances, refraining from partying, etc. requires disciplined members of society to delay their gratification. It seems that in most Western countries, our current generations (in the US, the Baby Boomers, Generation X, Millennials, and Zoomers) that have had it so easy since the end of WWII have all taken a cue from Veruca Salt, a character in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, who wants everything “now!” Such a powerful urge for instant gratification permeates Western societies. Dinner can be ordered and delivered to our home almost immediately. The latest song or movie is downloaded in a flash. Our favorite TV programs are watched in their entirety in binges, rather than half an hour at a time once a week. We want to lose weight by swallowing miracle pills or by having surgery rather than introducing discipline and new, healthier eating habits to our life. We do not just have an attachment to our comforts, we have an overattachment to having them all here and now. So, when the government asks us to show some self-discipline to fight a deadly pandemic, it has proven difficult for many to sacrifice these comforts — even though many of these conveniences ought to have made it easier for people to stay at home! Therefore, many are cloaking their unwillingness to exert self-discipline and delay gratification under the claim of fighting for their personal freedoms. But this is disingenuous, because we now know from what happened in the East that all personal freedoms are restored once coronavirus infections become or approach zero.
The unwillingness to delay gratification or dispense with our small everyday comforts and our pampered way of life lies behind the West’s gargantuan effort to find a vaccine to beat the pandemic. Whereas the East has successfully controlled the virus through social discipline and by foregoing gratification for a bit, in the West, the vaccine has become a kind of “silver bullet,” a panacea that will magically bring an end to the pandemic, without us having … to change our lives! Unfortunately, although some of these new vaccines may decrease the mortality rate and, if we are lucky, may also have some positive result in curbing the spread of the virus, they will definitely not end the pandemic by themselves — at least not anytime soon. As long as the virus is still spreading in the general population, most of the current unpopular curtailments of freedom will remain. The East is not depending on vaccination to curb the pandemic, and it may well avoid it altogether — as it did during the other Asian epidemics in this century.
Believe it or not, it seems that even Nature (or Biology) rewards collectivist societies. Two studies, one in 2008 and a recent one in 2018, which examined the correlation of collectivism-individualism to the historical pathogen burden for 66 countries, have shown that although collectivist countries have more pathogens in their societies, they show decreased pathogen transmission that seems to be the result of their lifestyle functioning as a social defense. Therefore, these countries have experienced fewer disease outbreaks in recent times. As the more recent paper put it, “one possible cost for individualistic cultures may be their higher susceptibility to disease outbreaks.”
As we enter the second year of the pandemic, a new reality takes shape in the world: There is a palpable split between the East and the West. The East is fast reverting back to complete pre-virus normality. The Asia-Pacific countries that will have successfully gotten rid of the virus will soon open travel between one another by creating travel-bubbles — travel restrictions being the last remaining bastion of defense against the pandemic. But I think that the West will continue to struggle with pandemic resurgences, especially if it prematurely drops its guard due to the onset of vaccinations. In a sense, the rational West will continue its irrational attempts at controlling the pandemic without following the successful methods of the East. In the meantime, the rest of the world will turn East, and especially to China, for guidance and all sorts of help. While the world will continue to be interconnected, the split between East and West will become more pronounced and important.
But the pandemic split is only part of the story. With the return of complete normality in the East, what I wrote in my first piece will become obvious to all: This pandemic is no tsunami or earthquake or hurricane; the death toll, the mayhem and destruction we see in Europe and the US is manmade! Because of this realization and many other factors, the West’s prestige, allure, power, and also its self-anointed superiority and self-confidence (this most precious quality of its individualism!) will wane. Many of the West’s centers of power and influence will either move to the East or be replaced by new centers addressing a new world in which the West will not reign supreme. The announcement that the World Economic Forum — this most prestigious event, a symbol of Western dominance — will take place in Singapore rather than in its homeplace of Davos, Switzerland, in May 2021, is the first sign of such a West-East shift.
I leave you with a series of tweets from December 21st by the academic, political commentator, and author of When China Rules the World, Martin Jacques, which summarize both this new reality as well as some of the ideas I have covered here and in my previous three essays:
Britain is in almost complete lockdown. Nine months since the first. Europe is closing its borders to the British. Across Europe the pandemic is worsening. The US has over 300,000 dead. Far from getting better, the situation in the West is getting worse. The West has failed.
At what point will the West wake up to the fact [that] this is an historic crisis of Western government, society and culture? Without a vaccine, the West has shown that it cannot deal with the virus. It has been forced to admit defeat and live with it. And it is losing the battle.
The West likes to think it is cosmopolitan. Wrong. It is increasingly provincial in its mentality. East Asian societies have conquered Covid-19. We barely even acknowledge the fact. We desperately try to ignore that China has succeeded where we have catastrophically failed.
If the West was cosmopolitan it would seek to learn from East Asia, ask why it is successful. Yet the worse things get, the less curious the West has become about East Asia. This is the story of the West as a failing, self-absorbed, inward-looking culture and civilization.
The success of East Asia, with China at its heart, has many explanations including: 1. Competent and strategic government; 2. Great respect amongst the people for government and authority; 3. A deep commitment to society and social bonds rather than selfish individualism.
One small example. My son was in Seoul for 3 months: He didn’t see a single person not wearing a mask outdoors. Covid has been largely dealt with. That’s social discipline and respect. We lack a culture that believes society rather than the individual is paramount.
It is no use simply putting the West’s plight down to bad luck or an unpredictable disaster. The greatest test of government and societies is their ability to deal with such disasters, be they war or pandemics. It is clear that Western societies fundamentally lack resilience.
Western governments have failed miserably at being single-minded about the priority, eliminating the virus. They have failed to think strategically. They have failed to give leadership. And the people lack the kind of social discipline and social respect that is essential.
If you liked this essay, you may give it up to 50 claps and follow me. You may also read my previous three essays about the pandemic, Coronavirus I — The Arrogance of the West, Coronavirus II — Our Wealth Is Our Elderly, and Coronavirus III — The Resistance to Change. You may also subscribe to my monthly Tuesday Letter and check out my award-winning book, “Destination Earth — A New Philosophy of Travel by a World-Traveler,” published by Bamboo Leaf Press.