New Virus, Old Hatreds

People wear protective face masks, following an outbreak of the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19), at Lujiazui financial district in Shanghai, China March 19, 2020. (Aly Song/Reuters)

It’s called the novel coronavirus because we’ve never seen anything like it. We should be wary of using familiar antagonisms to orient ourselves to it.

I often think we live in populist times because of Twitter. Something about that medium allows the journalists who occupy mainstream, opinion-setting media outlets to converge quickly on what they deem to be the highest-status opinion about current events. Nassim Nicholas Taleb refers to this class of people as IYI, Intellectuals Yet Idiots, and defines it as “the inner circle of no-skin-in-the-game policymaking ‘clerks’ and journalists-insiders, that class of paternalistic semi-intellectual experts with some Ivy league, Oxford-Cambridge, or similar label-driven education who are telling the rest of us 1) what to do, 2) what to eat, 3) how to speak, 4) how to think . . . and 5) who to vote for.”

We all feel this class exists. It is the most prominent voice in the culture, and we can almost hear it speaking to us from within our own faults. Some of us acknowledge the presence of this voice in our culture and in our own heads when we jokingly warn people that what we are about to say might be “problematic.” Many of us also feel that this kind of faux expert is almost always wrong, that these ‘clerks’ are an anti-compass, and whatever they say is true north must almost certainly be due south.

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I think this suspicion is very much at work in the story of COVID-19. The question is: When did you decide the “clerks” were screwing up this story and its meaning?

For me, it happened in the last week of January, in the days after Wuhan went into lockdown. I tend to think of China as having a government that can be callous with human life, and was astonished at the ferociousness of its fight with the new coronavirus. I kept thinking, This must really be horrible, if China is willing to shut down some of its major industrial heartlands in response. On the last day of that month, I wrote about my growing obsession with samizdat Chinese media, and how “waiting for the official statements has actually worsened the pit in my stomach.”

I was most inspired by Chinese lawyer Chen Quishi’s passionate YouTube account of the lack of tests and the horrible state of Wuhan. Within a week, Quishi had disappeared or been disappeared, and his social-media accounts were deactivated. What struck me about the initial declaration of an “emergency” by the World Health Organization was its cringe-inducing praise of the Chinese government’s “transparent” efforts, when in fact China’s story about the virus kept changing. And what really got me worried was that around this time, I started looking for face masks, and all the shelves were emptied of them. Store clerks told me that that Chinese Americans were buying them and sending them to China.

At this same time, the U.S. media was converging on the opinion that the novel coronavirus was probably no big deal. Lots of articles made it seem as if only rubes could be concerned about COVID-19, because the seasonal flu is worse. Vox edited and repurposed an old article about the Ebola outbreak saying that travel restrictions aren’t effective against the spread of disease. Concerns about the virus itself and belief in the efficacy of quarantines, one of the most traditional methods of disease control, were deemed racist. The anti-travel-ban stance was adopted by the World Health Organization, which criticized governments banning travelers from China. WHO’s head denounced the “stigma” as worse than the disease, even as the organization continued praising China’s response to it, which happened to include draconian restrictions on internal travel. Donald Trump himself, having just called a ceasefire in his trade war with Beijing, praised Chairman Xi’s handling of the crisis.

Taken together, these were my IYIs. And as I saw them treating the coronavirus the way they treat every subject, from the distribution of income to the distribution of Oscars awards, my sense was that it would probably be very serious indeed. Hong Kong, Taiwan, and South Korea all took serious and dramatic measures, including limits on entry, to contain the virus.

But I don’t think most people in America were paying much attention until reported numbers of cases started clustering in Seattle and Westchester, N.Y. and Italy decided to put some northern regions, and eventually its entire country, into a lockdown. Trump was still, at this point, saying that the virus would go away on its own, that it was under control, that it would not be a problem in America. He resisted letting infected patients off a cruise ship, seemingly to keep the overall numbers down. And then, almost overnight, the media conventional wisdom flipped. Vox, to take a representative example, memory-holed its confident prediction that it would not become a deadly pandemic.

By the time most people tuned in, lockdown was the urgent conventional wisdom, even though it is a form of extreme travel restriction. New explainers have been born to map out incubation periods, asymptomatic spreaders, and how to flatten the curve. Instead of anti-racism, epidemiology is the order of the day. And now people who opted not to take AP calculus their senior year of high school are plotting fatality rates. By a process of simple mathematical extrapolation, unconnected to how humans actually socialize with one another, extravagant projections have been made that millions will die.

I think a great many Americans, sitting in the giant swathes of the country where coronavirus is nowhere to be found, are wondering if it’s all a lot of hysteria from the intellectual-yet-idiot class. Trump obviously senses this suspicion is out there. He’s hearing from people who wonder why you can’t hire a crew to lay a flagstone patio, as if that were a major vector of disease transmission. And he’s getting nervous about the projections of Goldman Sachs and other Wall Street institutions that 20 or 30 percent unemployment is in our near future, an economic reckoning the likes of which we’ve never seen.

Maybe they are right, but then again, Taleb became famous precisely because he understood that the masters of the universe on Wall Street were almost entirely IYIs, too.

Some humility is in order from amateur epidemiologists and economists. COVID-19 is called the novel coronavirus because it is a new thing in the world. That should caution us against orienting ourselves to it by the same old antagonisms.

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