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    On ‘Herd Immunity’ and Playing Politics in a Pandemic

    The British government’s initial COVID-19 response plan has come in for heavy criticism over the past week. So why did so many of China’s public intellectuals insist on defending it?

    When the British government declared last Thursday that its plan for dealing with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic leaned on mitigating the fallout from the disease, rather than going all-out to suppress it, the response from experts around the world ranged from bewilderment to horror. By the government’s own estimate, achieving “herd immunity” would potentially require about 60% of the British population to become infected with the disease. Within days, almost 300 U.K.-based academics had signed an open letter warning that the tactic would risk “many more lives than necessary.”

    In China, which is only just emerging from a monthslong battle to suppress the virus predicated on harsh, sometimes draconian quarantine and lockdown policies, the reaction to the U.K.’s plan was no less confused. But British Prime Minister Boris Johnson might be touched to learn that at least one group had his back: A number of prominent Chinese intellectuals went out of their way to defend his government’s strategy.

    On March 14, two days after the plan was unveiled, the respected financial news outlet Caixin published a column by economics professor Yu Xiaohua which explored the underlying principles of the “herd immunity” idea, while stressing that critics shouldn’t rush to judgment. The epidemic prevention models adopted by countries like the U.K., Germany, and China would necessarily be different, Yu wrote, and it was impossible to know how they would play out.

    Sanlian Life Week, another prominent Chinese news magazine, ran an even more supportive take the following day. “The British epidemic prevention model is not personally decided by Boris Johnson,” the magazine’s chief writer, Yuan Yue, wrote. “It is a scientific adjustment based on (experts’) current understanding of virology.”

    Yuan went on to suggest letting every government act in its own way, to give scientists more “control groups” to study in the future. “This,” he wrote, “is higher-level humanism.”

    Of course, it doesn’t take much understanding of virology to recognize the plan was a debacle, marred by poor communication, bad science, and a lack of transparency. One non-peer reviewed study by a respected research team warned that attempts to mitigate, rather than suppress, the novel coronavirus could result in 250,000 deaths in the country. Even before Caixin and Sanlian ran their pieces, the Johnson government had already begun to change course, banning mass gatherings less than 24 hours after saying such methods would be of little use.

    Why did so many Chinese intellectuals — the above-mentioned authors are just two among many — nevertheless defend the plan? Their stance may come as a surprise to non-Chinese, given the relative success so far of the country’s “hardcore” epidemic prevention methods and the bitter lessons gleaned from its initially sluggish response. But anyone familiar with post-reform era Chinese intellectualism can probably recognize the pattern: For many Chinese liberals, the West has been a life raft in choppy seas, and some would rather go down with the ship than admit their longtime haven is taking on water.

    The advent of China’s “reform and opening-up” policy in 1979 saw a reemergence of liberal thought in the country, not just among academics and activists, but professionals, journalists, and others. In theory, they are advocates of thinking objectively and critically and bear the burden of calling out the egregious fault lines in our present system. In practice, however, too many reduce “the West” to a beacon, talisman, and occasional bludgeon, using it as a model and ideological weapon in their battles with China’s authorities while exempting its flaws from their critical analyses.

    In this context, Britain’s “herd immunity” strategy was just another way to cast doubt on the necessity of the strict measures used by the Chinese government to combat the novel coronavirus, including province-wide lockdowns, strict household quarantines, and tight travel restrictions. Despite the apparent success of these methods, many had been fumbling for a fundamentally different, and ideally more successful, Western model that they could point to and say, “See? There’s a better way.”

    However valid some of their critiques may be, this time I think they’re making a mistake. In a pandemic, a government has a duty to do its utmost to prevent the largest number of people from getting sick and delay the spread of infection. That, and not politics, is the standard we have to use.

    Many defenders of the plan also seem to have confused the Western political theories they adore with the reality of who is now in charge of these countries. They still believe the Western political system could never go awry. But personally, I’d argue that a few leaders in today’s Western world have shown themselves to be entirely irresponsible, even evil.

    In fairness, Chinese liberal intellectuals are in an extremely difficult position politically. In 2017, I wrote about how they had become popular targets for online abuse. The situation has only deteriorated since then, as netizens have been swept up by a rising tide of digital nationalism. Today, the country’s liberal literati are constantly mocked for their pro-West and anti-China stances with tags like “American dogs” or “bootlickers.”

    Under tremendous pressure, some public-facing liberals have lost their sobriety and neutrality. Responding to extremism in kind, they have become more and more like their vitriolic attackers. It’s a shame, but the optimism once fostered by the internet — that it would enhance mutual understanding and open minds — has been dashed. The digital world has become just another ideological battleground.

    There is another problem, however. Many of them are too convinced of their own intellectual abilities. They are the elites, they believe, and as such, know more than the country’s hoi polloi. They are confident they understand the West and Western culture and see themselves as candles illuminating China’s darkness. This air of superiority comes through in the articles they write. “Listen to me, you idiots,” they seem to say, though never quite in so many words.

    But how much are any of us really qualified to interpret the West? I can speak some English and have spent a few years living in Europe and the U.S. But while I once fancied myself something of an old hand when it came to the West, the past few years — even just the past few weeks — have done much to disabuse me of that notion. I couldn’t even begin to explain why people in the West seem so opposed to wearing face masks, for example, much less their policy choices.

    Of course, arrogance isn’t a disease limited to Chinese liberal intellectuals. If local officials in the central city of Wuhan had not been so confident they could control the situation three months ago, the novel coronavirus might never have become a nationwide epidemic. And if Western leaders had swallowed their pride, learned from China’s experiences, and applied tough preventive measures a month ago, that epidemic might never have morphed into a global pandemic.

    To borrow a line from Liu Cixin’s sci-fi epic “Three-Body” trilogy: “Weakness and ignorance aren’t barriers to survival, but arrogance is.”

    If there’s one lesson from China’s experience over the past three months, it’s that the novel coronavirus is a real threat. No one can anticipate what consequences it’ll bring, and we shouldn’t assume we can handle whatever it throws at us. Trying to score political points at a time like this, whether by supporting ineffective strategies just because they originated in the West, or stoking xenophobia by playing the blame game, is useless. The only way forward is to set aside our pride, be on guard against potential danger, and fight with everything we’ve got.

    Editor: Kilian O’Donnell.

    (Header image: A woman wears a mask in London, March 19, 2020. Tim Ireland via Xinhua)