Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Right Behind You. I

The right brain is where all the left things are happening. 

I've been reading this long and very well-made piece by David Wallace-Wells for New York Magazine ("How the West Lost Covid"), which begins with some pretty uncomfortable truth: that pretty much every government in Europe and North America, left or right, democratic or authoritarian, globalist or isolationist, pro-science or anti-science, screwed up in the pandemic fatally, in pretty much the same way; while the governments that handled it especially well come from an equally mixed bag, in East Asia and Australasia with just a tiny number of European outliers, Norway, Finland, and Iceland.

I remember starting to get an unpleasant sense of this in the fall and winter, when I was spending a lot of time looking at the statistics of the second wave of infections. You could predict certain outcomes from this or that lockdown or loosening, but you couldn't get a sense that one of your favorite countries in the first group, Canada or Germany, was doing an adequate job. The Trump and Johnson governments were as ignorant and vicious as you thought, but smart politicians in Italy, France, and Sweden—Sweden!—were doing just as badly as the US, or even considerably worse. And the same pattern was going on inside the US, with the better-equipped states, New Jersey and New York and California, doing just as badly as the incompetent and irresponsible leaderships of Florida and Texas. What was that about?

Wallace-Wells has a non-ideological kind of hypothesis for starters, about national cultures rather than politics, which is that the governments that dealt successfully with Covid were the ones that decided to kill the virus—to eradicate it—rather than learn to live with it, or mitigate it until the pharmacologists came up with something. "Basically," he quotes the Edinburgh public health professor Devi Sridhar,

“going back to January, they’d be like, ‘China’s not going to control it; 80 percent of the population is going to get it; all efforts to contain it are going to fail; we have to learn to live with this virus; contact tracing and testing make no sense; this is going to be everywhere; right now we need to build up hospitals’ — which they didn’t even do. But they really didn’t think it was stoppable,” she says. “And then all of a sudden you started to see, in February, South Korea stopping it, Taiwan stopping it, and China stopping it. Then, in March, New Zealand. And then Australia. And then there’s this realization of, ‘Oh, wow. Actually, it is controllable.’”

And then

For decades, the richest nations of the world had told themselves a story in which wealth and medical superiority offered, if not total immunity from disease, then certainly a guarantee against pandemics, regarded as a premodern residue of the underdeveloped world. That arrogance has made the coronavirus not just a staggering but an ironic plague. Invulnerability was a myth, of course, but what the pandemic revealed was much worse than just average levels of susceptibility and weakness. It was these countries that suffered most, died most, flailed most. Gave up most easily, too, acquiescing to so much more disease that they might have been fighting a different virus entirely. For nearly the entire year, the COVID epicenter was not in China, where the pathogen originated, or in corners of South Asia or sub-Saharan Africa, where limited state capacity and medical infrastructure seemed, at the outset, especially concerning, but either in Europe or the United States — places that were rated just one year ago the best prepared in the world to combat infectious disease.

And it wasn't exactly politics—what do Vietnam and New Zealand have in common, politically?—but now politics is coming back into the picture, in an unpleasant way, as Steve has been pointing out, with the popularity of utterly incompetent and crooked Republican Ron deSantis unaffected as the merely feckless Democrats Newsome and Cuomo are threatened with recall and impeachment respectively (New Jersey's fearlessly progressive governor Phil Murphy may be an exception to this trend, maybe because South Jersey's clubhouse Democrats hate him so much), with Covid failure punishing the liberals and letting the conservatives off, because:

  • we don't in general expect conservatives to do anything but theater
  • we do expect liberals to save our asses when things get tough

President Biden himself is getting excellent ratings at the moment, presumably because he hasn't failed but has actually accomplished extraordinary things in an incredibly short time, which is nice, but it's not clear that voters realize he needs Democrats at all levels to help him, even the ones who haven't performed so well.

Across the Atlantic, things may be a bit more complex. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, whose conduct in the pandemic seems worse than Trump's, is at his peak of popularity, as Labour drags itself into oblivion. "Technopopulist" Giuseppe Conte has been wangled out of office, but still enjoys huge approval, and you know how long Italian governments last. Leftists in Spain under Socialist Workers' Party prime minister Pedro Sánchez, on the other hand, are pushing a four-day workweek! which seems pretty cool. And in Germany, where Bundeskanzlerin Angela Merkel is retiring after the next elections,  local elections yesterday in two prosperous states yielded some very interesting results, with Merkel's Christian Democrats losing pretty badly, and the Nazioid Alternativ für Deutschland faring even worse.

What's compelling to me is the emergence of two different lefts as absolute victors: Green in the confident Swabian southwest and SPD in the nervous Rheinland. As if the rejection of the Christian Democrats were somehow a bigger thing than choosing a party to replace them. If eastern voters choose the post-Commuinist Linke, we'll know German voters just don't want to get left behind.

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