The West has failed – US and Europe have made a mess of handling the crisis

Western leaders have been insular slow learners at every stage of the Covid pandemic

All kinds of absurd stereotypes about Asia were used to support the Western exceptionalism that underpinned our bad policies. Photograph: Paul Scott

All kinds of absurd stereotypes about Asia were used to support the Western exceptionalism that underpinned our bad policies. Photograph: Paul Scott

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The pandemic has not been easy anywhere. But as the citizens of the West brace for a winter largely confined to their homes, retirees in Australia throng the bars, the streets of Taipei are busy and the restaurants of Seoul are full. The United States and Europe are outliers in how badly they have managed the pandemic, managing to sacrifice public health and tank their economies to an extent that may affect the global balance of power for our lifetimes.

The pandemic response has been politicised and captured by tiresome culture warriors, while restrictions are blamed for economic damage that is an inevitable as long as coronavirus roams. Contain it, and normality returns. There is no normal economy with a virus that kills and debilitates the human beings that make it up.

How did we get here?

All kinds of absurd stereotypes about Asia were used to support the Western exceptionalism that underpinned our bad policies. All the successful pandemic control techniques, including mask-wearing, contact-tracing, and compulsory quarantine, were initially dismissed as authoritarian and culturally inappropriate for the West.

Rather than learning from what already worked, we chose Hail Mary technological fixes that didn’t exist yet, like contact-tracing apps and vaccines, to justify business as usual

They were categorised as something only China would do, ignoring that these techniques were central to the successful pandemic response of democracies from Taiwan, to Japan, to South Korea. Ever-protesting Hong Kong is the example that makes particularly hilarious the idea that Asian people are just more “compliant” or “don’t love freedom” like the West.

Australia and New Zealand are majority white ex-colonial societies that don’t fit into this confused thinking anyway. Their practices were dismissed as “cutting themselves off from the world”. Australia will soon open up with New Zealand, and Hong Kong with Singapore, gradually expanding the bubble of safety. It is we, the virus-riddled Westerners, who will be isolated indefinitely.

Rather than learning from what already worked, we chose Hail Mary technological fixes that didn’t exist yet, like contact-tracing apps and vaccines, to justify business as usual.

Behind all of this was exceptionalism. Infectious diseases were viewed as a developing-world problem that the West had outgrown. We underfunded and neglected pandemic response. Many leaders and influential people had an inappropriate lack of alarm and grasped at fairytales that minimised the threat of the virus, the kind of false sense of invulnerability of people too sheltered to fear things.

This exceptionalism often took the form of the “it only kills the sick and the old” mantra. This is false: one in 10 people under 50 suffer enduring damage from the virus and it has always killed randomly. It’s also cruel: it treats the lives of any happy retiree, any mother of four with ovarian cancer, any young man with cystic fibrosis as disposable.

Its iteration in policy is deciding not to eliminate the virus while telling the vulnerable to cocoon, which means confining about a third of the population to indefinite house arrest, a weird flex by the governments of the world’s oldest and sickest populations, who rely on the votes of those people to stay in power.

This false separation of the strong and the weak also misunderstands society. People share accommodation. Grandmothers raise children. And people at risk of death from the virus are the very same who run our healthcare systems.

Like 46-year-old Diego Bianco of Italy, an ambulance paramedic who died in bed after telling his wife not to worry. Or 28-year-old Dr Adeline Fagan, who died last month in Texas after working shifts in the coronavirus emergency ward. Or Boy Ettema (42) a nurse who died intubated in his own hospital in the Netherlands.

Western governments treated their healthcare workers like load-bearing infrastructure, with policy aimed to “not overwhelm” hospitals. But governments are not so all-powerful as they delude themselves, that they can precisely calibrate how many people get sick at once from a highly infectious virus according to how many beds are available. When they err, they gift their much-applauded healthcare workers the trauma of choosing between patients.

Excuses could be made for ill-preparedness at the start of the pandemic. But Western leaders have been insular slow learners at every stage. And the failure to act effectively when cases were brought down to low levels during the summer – an achievement hard won with sacrifices by every citizen – is hard to forgive.

In the name of 'freedom', Western governments would not contemplate mandatory quarantines. Taoiseach Micheál Martin recently dismissed such practices in the Dáil as 'statist'

Western governments now emphasise that individual responsibility will determine the course of the pandemic. “The path it takes depends on YOU,” as Minister for Further and Higher Education Simon Harris tweeted this month.

Societal co-operation is vital. But no individual citizen has the power to put in place an effective testing and tracing system.

All the self-delusion has been self-defeating, as in a kind of tragic irony, the pursuit of each aim has led to its defeat.

In the name of saving the economy, the strategy over the summer was to get rid of the restrictions, not the virus. The European Commission’s “Reopen EU” website, with its little cocktail glass icon that allowed users to see if bars were open in their holiday destination, appears an absurd folly now that the rush to save the tourism and catering industries has bought us a crushing new wave of infection so severe it threatens to make the EU’s vaunted €750 billion stimulus agreement obsolete.

In the name of “freedom”, Western governments would not contemplate mandatory quarantines. Taoiseach Micheál Martin recently dismissed such practices in the Dáil as “statist”. Targeted, enforced quarantines for a few were unthinkable for the West. So now there are blanket restrictions on us all. What is more free? Which is more statist?

All states involve a trade off between citizens and their rulers: taxes for services, common rules for safety. The point of a state is to create the conditions for its citizens to thrive. The West has failed.

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