Politics & Policy

Just How Concerning Is the Coronavirus?

Medical workers put on protective suits at a preparation room next to the isolation wards at the Wuhan Red Cross Hospital in Wuhan in Hubei Province, China, February 24, 2020. (China Daily via Reuters)

This is an excerpt of episode 192 of The Editors.

Rich: Let’s go to a story that’s a little speculative. We have the coronavirus, which seems to be, if you can believe the numbers, in decline now in China, but that has left the border and is in all other places now, Iran, Italy, where they’re talking about shutting down cities. We had this very serious CDC warning that is coming to America and it will perhaps involve significant disruptions to our life. This reminds me a little bit, Michael, going back to Hurricane Katrina.

I just remember the National Weather Service. This is a biblical-level event, I think they’d said. Sometimes these warnings don’t pan out, but I think, at the very least, there’s going to be some coronavirus panic. Even if the disease isn’t that severe in this country, and there just must be, given how widespread it is now, people coming into the United States as we speak who are infected.

Michael: Right. One thing, when the story of the coronavirus first emerged, there’s a lot of talk about how this can be China’s Chernobyl because of the way ideology works and denial of the obvious facts and praising the regime, et cetera. What troubles me is that I’m worried that this is the western world’s Chernobyl too, is that I noticed the World Health Organization and others making comments first of all kowtowing to the Chinese government and trying to impress them, and there’s tons of articles across media saying the only danger from coronavirus is anti-Chinese bigotry and sentiment. So far, zero fatalities from anti-Chinese bigotry and sentiment related to coronavirus.

You’re seeing this all over. I mean, listen. I hope it’s not going to be very serious, but you’d rather overreact than underreact in these situations. We happen to be sitting on a continent whose population was wiped out 90 percent by globalization 500 years ago. I think it’s well past time to be concerned, and I’m distressed at how many authorities and institutions are trying to defend western ideology of capitalism and globalism, and not talking about public health. There was a great example today, Ireland had started issuing travel warnings about Italy and things like that as many other European countries do.

Their health minister comes out and says, “I just want to show everyone that free travel is a European value and we still value it.” It’s like, “Okay, this has nothing to do with the problem at hand.” That value isn’t really under question. We know you value it. That’s why this disease is bad because it threatens it. I’m very worried that there is a kind of softness in the western world about this kind of thing and we’re just seeing people saying their state ideology rather than the truth.

Rich: Jim, that just seems to make a lot of sense to me. Maybe it’s we’re being overly alarmist, but just seems to me you want to take every possible measure to stop this thing from getting loose. Because once it’s loose, you’re really going to regret it, and it is going to require major disruptions.

Jim: Yeah. From the very first reports of this, the general sense of this seemed bad. China saying that they had high rates of this, the possibility this started at this market. There were two pieces that were written really well and really explored this. One of them was Michael Brendan Dougherty’s “Death by Kowtow.” Rich, just count this as my editor’s pick for the week, getting out of the way early. You don’t need to ask me about it later, that everything about he said, but it seems that we’re underreacting to the coronavirus in the sense of the World Health Organization really seemed afraid of irking China in their first couple statements about this.

The other one was Ross Douthat’s piece where he pointed out, “Look, we are a culture and particularly a news media culture that can freak out about anything. I mean, not just the cable news which needs stuff to grab your attention.” Just think about how often, if you still watch your local 11:00 o’clock news, how many times you’ve seen promotions where it’s like, “Your home appliances maybe trying to kill you, we’ll have more on that at 11.” That general sense to anything.

All of a sudden, the coronavirus comes along and people are killing over and China is shutting down cities and the general sense is, “This really isn’t that much worse than the flu virus.” Well, if I tell you you’re getting the flu, your chances of dying from under about one in 1000 and you feel pretty good. If I tell you you’re getting coronavirus, you’re probably getting . . . Your chances of dying are probably about 23 and 1000. All of a sudden, maybe you’re a little bit worried about that. Now, I wrote something in the Corner earlier this week, maybe the best-case scenario, and this is . . . look, we’re still learning about the coronavirus.

Of course, we’re afraid of the unknown. We’re seeing much more deaths among older males than females in China. I looked up the numbers, more than half of Chinese men smoke and they start smoking usually, on average at age 15. China does not have the best air quality to begin with. If you have this virus that attacks the lungs, and you have a whole bunch of people who’ve been smoking their whole lives, maybe that’s why this is killing so many people in China, and maybe it won’t be quite so bad and a whole bunch of other countries that have lower smoking rates. That’s the best-case scenario. Then you run the numbers on this, when you start with a billion people, you add up to the neighborhood of . . . That’s probably about 60 million older men in China who’ve been smoking their whole lives.

You think they got a good reason to be nervous? You think we have a good . . . what is trying to do when they have 60 million people who would keel over because of this? I think we are just beginning to get a sense of the scale of this. I don’t want to be sounding like a panic, but based on what we know, this is going to cause a huge problem. In Hong Kong, they shut down the schools until Easter. I guess the kids are giving up education for Lent, I guess is the approach there. People are reacting in other countries like this is a really big deal and the sneaking suspicion is that we’re all kind of whistling past the graveyard on this.

Rich: Luke, China was the epicenter of this, obviously, and some of the measures they’ve used have just been extraordinary and you can never imagine happening in advanced western countries. I mean, there are videos of apartment buildings where if there’s more than one person who’s been diagnosed with the coronavirus, they weld the front door shut, so no one’s getting out.

Luke: I mean, look, authoritarian states generate theatrical displays of action all the time. Part of the reason they were so slow to react was that there’s a lot of BS that gets put up the ladder instead of reporting real bad news in that respect. It’s not dissimilar from what happened at Chernobyl. At the same time, when the system of order decides to react, everybody is then trying to compete one another to out-react to the threat. I would only add here because I think people have covered what we do and don’t know about the virus that pandemic politics in the United States and how the executive is perceived to have handled it is very real, very challenging, and very tricky.

I was at the Republican Senate committee in 2014 and that summer, we saw distrust of Obama’s ability to manage issues spike during Ebola. It stayed high. His administration’s perfectly reasonable and seemingly engaged approach to Ebola didn’t deal intelligently enough with what our outsized, but ultimately reasonable fears in the face of a scary unknown on the part of the public, and it hurt Democrats very badly come November in that election.

Rich: This is something you’ve studied, presidents and crisis and emergencies?

Luke: Yeah. Pandemics are a funny thing because they’re not . . . We have built-in responses there. They’re one of the very few crises that there’s a playbook for. I mean, we have lots and lots of handbooks for lots of things and there are people who sit in at Weather Mountain overnight and wait literally in a room full of three-ring binders for when the proverbial fecal matter hits the aeration device. But when it comes to pandemics, you have a genuine class of management expertise and they go through lots of reps and whatnot. I would recommend to the White House to appoint a coronavirus czar, pick someone who could be in charge of it, who is very skilled at communicating facts to people so that folks don’t just hear the government saying, “All is well! All is well!”

They need to know that this is serious, that you’re taking it seriously, but that to date you have it under control. If you look dismissive as Obama did, then all it takes is one person to slip through the corridor and people panic and you suddenly look like you were lying to people. That is the worst thing a government facing pandemic can do politically.

Rich: Exit question to you Xan, how worried are you about a coronavirus outbreak in the United States: very, somewhat, mildly, not at all?

Alexandra: I would say, I’m somewhat worried about it and I say that only because I do think there will be very large numbers of people with the coronavirus here, but I’m not deeply worried about what that’s going to look like in terms of deaths. I mean, maybe I will be . . . I’m one of the people whistling past the graveyard here. Maybe I’m too optimistic, but I don’t think it’s going to be the plague or something like that without that kind of death rate.

Rich: Jim Geraghty.

Jim: Pretty darn worried. We have the advantage of a much better system, much better hospitals, much better doctors, and somewhat more trust than the Chinese government has, but all in all, I still think there’s good reason to be very worried. This will probably be the story of the year, maybe even bigger than the presidential election.

Rich: Luke Thompson.

Luke: I’m not terribly worried about it because I do think we’ve got a good response and we’re ready to go, but I think the political ramifications of this could be far greater than the actual effect of the disease.

Rich: I’m somewhere between very and somewhat. I take Jim’s point, we’re better suited to handling this than most places and Xan’s point that we’re not going to . . . MBD mentioned 90 percent of the Indians dying when Europeans showed up. That’s obviously not going to happen, but the first time someone’s found to have been infected and to have been riding the New York City subway for days, the subways are going to empty out. I mean, I really do think there’ll be major disruptions, panic buying, and things of that nature that will be quite remarkable.

So Xan, final topic this week, you had a big debate in the Senate over these two abortion bills. You followed it very closely. What did you make of it?

Alexandra: Yeah. Senate Democrats managed to block two different pro-life bills, one of which was the Pain-Capable Bill, which would ban abortion after 20 weeks based on a decent amount of scientific evidence suggesting that fetuses have at least the capacity to feel pain around that point. It’s one of these compromise bills saying, look, most Americans do not favor the Democratic Party position of abortion on demand before birth. Maybe we could draw a line at some common sense or reasonable point maybe here. That did not work out. Unsurprisingly, I think only two Democrats voted for it, Joe Manchin and Bob Casey, both of whom tend to vote for pro-life legislation a lot of the time.

The second bill was not an abortion restriction, despite the way it was covered in the media. It was the Born-Alive Bill, and this bill would require that doctors provide the same medical care to an infant who survives abortion as they would to any other infant of that gestational age. The idea is just to create some federal requirement that these infants are treated, not like second-class citizens or non-existent people or whatever else simply because they were meant to have been aborted. That bill, unfortunately, also failed, but it did get more support from Democrats and both Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski voted for it even though they tend to vote with Democrats on these issues.

I would say this is a huge electoral problem for Democrats to be voting this way on these kinds of bills particularly the Born-Alive Bill, but just judging from how much cover they get from the media, I wonder if it’ll actually have any ill effect at all because people won’t be able to figure out what’s actually in the bills.

Rich: Jim, these bills weren’t weren’t going to pass, but how much do you think they just moved the ball in terms of public persuasion?

Jim: For a long time, the philosophy of Democrats was, “Republicans are really unreasonable. They’re so intolerant. They’re so knee-jerk. They don’t understand this is a complicated issue. Young women really struggle with this. They have this theocratic viewpoint. They want to ban abortion. We’re the ones who are reasonable and probably the peak of that was Bill Clinton saying it should be safe, legal, and rare.” You don’t hear the rare stuff anymore. You hear, “Shout your abortion, sing about your abortion.”

I’m really surprised at the way the Democrats are approaching this issue in recent years. I don’t think when you get shellacked in 2016 on the full scale that they did, when you see some of the losses at state-legislative level, at the gubernatorial level, Senate, House, add it all up, I don’t know if that you’re getting more and more extreme on the abortion issue has helped them. I think that loss of nuance, that loss of any sense of moral conflict. It was considered quasi-revolutionary when Klobuchar just acknowledge that pro-life Democrats should be allowed to exist in the party.

I don’t think this works for them as well as they have. In previous discussions, we’ve noted that the turnout for these Democratic primaries is not what Democrats thought it was going to be, and there really is just this continuing sense that they are in a bubble, and because they never talked to somebody, the Lipinskis, the pro-life Democrats at all, they don’t understand how extreme they sound to lots of ordinary Americans.

Rich: Luke Thompson.

Luke: The politics of abortion are definitely changing. They’re changing in interesting ways. Part of that is that the politics have changed at the state level already and are drifting up into the federal level. I think the most important thing to keep in mind is that abortion politics right now is linguistically trapped in a sort of baby-boomer-driven framework in the 1980s, but the electorate is moving out of that and nobody really has a great idea about what the next framework of abortion politics is going to be. The only big-picture thing I see that’s interesting is that, historically, the claim, at least of the pro-abortion side of the argument was, “We have science and technology on our side,” and that’s changed.

Now that you have advances both in . . . medical advances in terms of saving the lives of children born prematurely, such that the age of viability has reduced considerably, even in the last five years has changed this politically, as well as the ever marching on improvements in ultrasound technology that bring really to life, so to speak, what’s going on in the womb. I think that nobody quite knows exactly when that’s going to flip a certain calculus, how it catalyzes, et cetera, but that’s the big trend I’m looking at.

Members of the National Review editorial and operational teams are included under the umbrella “NR Staff.”

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