Belmont Club

It's Not Coronavirus We Should Worry About, It's What Might Come After It

(Zhizhou Deng courtesy Wikipedia)

The coronavirus crisis is testing political systems all over the world. In China it is challenging Xi Jin Ping because he “owns” the system, Melinda Liu writes in Foreign Policy. “The party has something to do with everything in China, especially under Xi Jinping—and suddenly, for Xi, that has become a double-edged sword. As president, party head, and top military commander, Xi has consolidated his authority, centralized decision-making, abolished presidential term limits, and promoted his loyalists. People expect Xi, China’s ‘chairman of everything,’ to fix everything when it goes wrong.”

And there’s a lot wrong. The virus is devouring the entire Chinese medical system. NPR reports that patients requiring urgent surgery, and even cancer treatment, are simply turned away because the epidemic has used up all available Chinese resources. If you arrive in the hospital with a heart problem, too bad.

There’s simply not room at health care facilities that are focusing on coronavirus patients. There’s also concern that admitting non-COVID-19 patients could put them at risk of infection by the virus, especially if they suffer from a compromised immune system.

In Shanghai, 33 major hospitals announced they would stop offering treatment in specialties such as oncology and heart and lung surgery. Most cited directives from the municipal government to avoid infection within hospital wards as the chief reason.

An Iranian government that withstood war from its neighbors and endured Western sanctions for decades may be fatally rocked by the virus. “The coronavirus outbreak has erupted into the Islamic Republic’s latest image crisis. With public trust plummeting around the government cover-up in January of accidentally shooting down a Ukrainian passenger jet, the government’s handling of the virus outbreak is a critical test not only for its healthcare industry but also for its political legitimacy in a time of deepening anger and protest.”

Even the glittering European vision could be the next coronavirus victim, says the New York Times. “The crown jewel of the E.U., borderless travel, has been hit hard by the refugee crisis. The virus could deliver another blow.”

This was the year — with Britain out, terrorism waning and the migrant crisis at an ebb — that the European Union had hoped to repair and revive its cherished goal of open internal borders.

But cases of the virus have emerged nearly daily in new European countries … As the cases spread and multiply, calls for closing borders have grown louder, most predictably from the far right and populists who were never fans of the bloc’s open border policy.

So far no country has taken that drastic step, but privately European officials warned that this could change quickly.

Nor is the U.S. exempt from challenge by the looming pandemic. Democratic politicians are sparing no effort to make Trump — like Xi — “own” the virus crisis: “With markets sliding due to supply chain disruption, coronavirus could have dramatic impacts on 2020 election … a damaged economy from concerns around a potential pandemic could add the final ingredient to flatten Mr Trump’s re-election prospects.”

“One of the big issues that is clearly hanging fire is what’s going to happen to the economy in light of the coronavirus crisis,” Mr Lichtman told The Independent. “We have no idea, the crisis could peter out or it could lead to a worldwide pandemic that could slide America into recession, which would obviously doom Donald Trump.”

Now there are indications the virus is spreading in California. The pathogen could turn against the entire progressive agenda too. If the epidemic toppled Trump, would it even matter if Bernie Sanders won? A president Bernie would have no free stuff to give away. There would be no medical care to dole out — as China’s patients can testify. Colleges might free, but physically closed. The whole city of Hong Kong is already homeschooling, with the city’s 800,000 students officially studying online.

These are actualities to set against the promises of politicians. In global terms, the coronavirus epidemic has reduced trust in One World institutions even further than they had fallen already. The bat from Wuhan that trashed the tourism trade, sank the cruise ship industry, cancelled myriad events, crippled global supply chains, and upended politics is the single most dramatic example of the Butterfly Effect in history.

The addiction of governments to censorship means there may be other black swans out of China or somewhere else. One possible domino could be a new refugee flood at the gates of the EU. “Displaced person camps (such as the 80,000-person Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan) are particularly vulnerable. Refugees and other migrants flowing undetected to Europe are further risk factors for the spread of pandemics via the Middle East,” Michael Knights of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy writes. If a refugee showed up in the EU now the Open Borders dream would be dead on arrival. Knights continues:

One idea emerging from future-gazers—and I pay attention to novelists as well as economists, sociologists and technologists—is the idea that pandemics will roll back aspects of globalization or even bring it to a screeching halt. In Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl, a novel set in a futuristic Thailand, today’s globalization is a past period remembered as “the expansion.” In the face of pandemics and resource wars, global trade has collapsed into a new reality known as “the contraction.”

The alternative to the contraction, as readers of the Belmont Club already know, is componentization. Like applications on your smartphone, each has to be separated from the others by standard interfaces so that corruption in one does not destroy them all. That is the future political parties must envision instead of rehashing Marxist manifestos from the early 20th century. Chief among componentization’s needs must be a worldwide text-only satellite-based system, unfettered by prior censorship, and open to every fully attributed person on the planet.

Bad as it is, it’s not the coronavirus we should worry about so as much as what might come after it. The reason Xi did not see the fatal black swan approaching despite ubiquitous surveillance and AI is because information is a surprise, not the carrier wave, but something unknown as yet, or else it would be in cache. But one has to be open to one’s own ignorance to listen and that is something authoritarians can’t do, even when their survival depends on it.

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