China’s COVID Secrets. PBS Frontline, 2021.
There is an understandable reticence to being critical of China given the context of a United States president’s trafficking in racial and racist tropes and epithets. This is the analytical side of the problem with racism (in addition to the moral); it can make honest and critical evaluation difficult, especially in extremely important matters such as a global pandemic. To that, PBS Frontline has done a good job providing a journalistic critique of all the things that went wrong in late 2019 and early 2020 that most definitely contributed to the outbreak becoming far worse than it would have been had other measures been taken. And, China does bear a bulk of the responsibility. And, Chinese culture is part of the explanatory scope of that blame. And, we can and must say all of that without devolving into racism.
If we’re going to never let a good tragedy go to waste, and if we’re going to learn desperately important truths that we can and ought to apply to the next pandemic (’cause, there will be another), then let’s consider a few lessons we can draw from this reporting. Here are some of my observations:
Truth and Transparency Are One. Epistemology is the area of philosophical study that considers the nature of knowledge and truth. This is a perennial discussion that considers the material as well as psychological factors that go into the construction of “truth.” Here, in light of a global pandemic, and the proposition that our ethics and values are “inter-subjective” (cf. Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens), we may want to seriously consider that “truth”–when it comes to public health–is only true when it is transparent. In addition to the Chinese government’s obfuscation of the data in their public communications, the World Health Organization (W.H.O.) also faltered in ensuring that that which was private was made public. It appears as if we have a long way to go in extending a global social trust in areas of public health.
Fear Is A Double-Edged Sword. I can only trust that the documentary is reporting accurately that the culture of the Chinese government has a high level of disdain for chaos, believing that controls are necessary to reduce panic and eliminate disorder. It is reasonable to be concerned how groups of people will manage their fear of a deadly virus. It is equally reasonable to be concerned that fear of how groups will manage their fear is also dangerous.
Let’s democratize information. As our global society advances into the future, we must consider the tool of democratizing information a necessary value in alleviating us all of that fear as we coordinate our efforts as a global community. Let us empower our global community to desire to understand better, rather than simply reacting to what we don’t yet fully grasp.
Truth-Telling is not the same as policy implementation. It was my sense that all governments involved felt hindered in this regard, and understandably so. This is where our general population can work with governments, to understand that virtues and values of information sharing are distinctly different from policy implementation. We need to rely on our government and our professionals to speak plainly, transparently, and honestly, to tell us what they know, and then tell us what they’re going to do about it, and for us to recognize the difference.
Hesitation breeds bad options. At one point in the film there is the suggestion that by the time the Chinese government knew that COVID-19 was transmissible human-to-human, a large swath of the population had migrated in preparation for New Year’s celebrations. Putting an entire country, or even region in lockdown with millions of people disproportionately concentrated in the large cities would have resulted in a far more tragic human and health crisis. While there are no good options, triaging the options is part of the game we have to play. We can mitigate this by simply telling the truth.
(I should say at this point that one of the key pieces of “truth” at play here is that we know coronaviruses are transmissible human-to-human. China is especially aware given the history of SARS. This “fact” was downplayed significantly as COVID-19 developed and began to spread.)
Overall, we desperately need to think in “systems” not “events.” While it is true that the COVID-19 sequence is from a bat, most likely consumed by a human, and while it is true the Chinese government did not share information as openly and transparently as they could have, and while it is true that the W.H.O. had policies about public communication that compromised effective early mitigation, not any one of these things is the “cause” or “reason” things went poorly. To tackle these great challenges, we are going to have to do something that our human psychology finds extremely taxing. We are going to have to think holistically, about the entire system of activities, behaviors, decisions, cultures, economies, authorities, biologies, etc., and recognize that it is all interrelated. Much like the spread of this disease, our behavior, thinking, and values are also deeply interconnected. As such, we must resist the default impulse to finger-point and instead reach to hand-holding as the way forward.