Lessons from 2020: A Global Perspective on Covid-19
As this annus horribilis draws to a close, it might be appropriate to step back for a little while and try to summarize a few lessons from the pandemic.
The first has to do with the limits of knowledge. Despite the fact that a year has passed since the emergence of SARS-CoV-2, there is still much we don’t know. Why is Spain doing much better today than other European countries when it was among the worst a few months ago? Why is Germany, until recently an example of how to manage Covid-19, doing so poorly now? Why is the second wave (if we can really call it that) causing such havoc in the United States, a country that, after experiencing a tragic few months, seemed to have accumulated enough information in the first half of the year to avoid what is now happening in many states? Why was Sweden spared in the second half of the year, over several months, from the fate that was befalling other European countries, even though wearing a mask was neither mandatory nor common practice? If it had something to do with herd immunity, why has Sweden, in the latter weeks of the year, taken a turn for the worse? Why has Africa, a continent with more than a billion people and precarious health care systems, resisted so much better than the Americas?
The answers to many of these questions are not definitive. Covid-19 reminds us of how painfully difficult it is to accumulate knowledge. Because it is dispersed (bits of knowledge emerge from what is experienced by different people, communities and countries), evolutionary (what we learn tomorrow often contradicts what we learned yesterday) and tentative (trial and error is an essential mechanism), our civilization needs institutions and systems of government that facilitate that process. Placing the responsibility of accumulating knowledge—and acting on it—on centralized, vertical institutions such as the state can only, by definition, hamper the process of knowledge. What we have seen this year validates Friedrich Hayek’s extensive work on the dispersion of knowledge and books such as Thomas Sowell’s Knowledge and Decisions.
A second lesson that comes to mind concerns liberal democracies. Imperfect, fallible, and in some cases decadent, as they are, the fact that as citizens we have seen our governments take away from us a large part of the responsibility for conducting our own lives means we have been deprived of freedoms that until a year ago we took for granted. The only positive outcome, perhaps, is that many in the developed world—including academics, politicians and activists—who underestimate the conquests of civilization and condone totalitarianism or authoritarianism elsewhere have gotten a taste of what others routinely have to suffer. The authoritarian regulation of one’s daily life by a political entity—and the severe limitation of one’s ability to move, interact, work, trade, and communicate—is, in varying degrees, a permanent condition for billions around the world.
A third and last lesson has to do with the rise of the East. Even if western liberal democracies have known for decades that a part of Asia is fast catching up with West, the East, particularly East Asia, has acquired this year, thanks to its success against Covid-19, a prestige that goes beyond supply chains, GDP growth rates, competitive trade, academic competition or military power. Although in Asia’s most successful countries important ailments remain, there seems to be something better suited in those societies to confronting and managing crises such as the pandemic than in our liberal democracies. (I am not talking about Asia’s dictatorships, but about those that in one way or another imported from the West, at least partially, democracy under the rule of law.) It is beyond the remit of this post to explore what that is. I simply note that the so-called rise of the East has taken a qualitative leap forward that ought, in the near future, to prompt careful study.