Why are the Chinese losing their minds over Omicron?
Thoughts about the significance and meaning of the Shanghai lockdown.
Sooner or later, Zero Covid makes you crazy, and right now, it is making the Chinese crazy.
That is my theory about what is going on in Shanghai, which has descended into a mass panic over a relative handful of Omicron infections, imposing a harsh and destructive lockdown to stop a disease that is probably no more dangerous than influenza.
Let us rehearse some recent history:
Lockdowns and mass testing and contact tracing and masking are all Asian (primarily Chinese) policies, adopted en masse and with little forethought by western countries in Spring 2020. Our public health mandarins set aside their own planning and opted for Chinese mass containment instead, because they noticed the virus was not very deadly in Asia, and they assumed this was because whatever it was the Asians were doing was the thing to do. Mass containment is a worldwide delusional rain dance: Everyone hops about trying to coax water out of the heavens, copying whatever dance was current in the first place it started to rain.
Crucially, virology has a very primitive and inadequate understanding of how viruses actually circulate. Virological doctrine is that they ought to behave the same everywhere, but they don’t. Early wild-type SARS-2 strains spread far more slowly and were far less deadly in the Asia Pacific, and this had nothing to do with lockdowns or “SARS experience.” Japan started out by ignoring Corona more or less entirely, while South Korea set up mass testing and contact tracing operations straightaway, and both countries saw minimal mortality.
There are many theories about why SARS-2 hit Asia so softly. Probably, the Asian-Pacific populations enjoyed some kind of prior immune protection, which would explain why the later, immune-resistant variant strains of SARS-2 have coincided with higher mortality in the East.
But the main point is this: Countries which did well early in the pandemic got another kind of virus, the Zero-Covid kind. They adopted an eradicationist orientation; they believed their containment measures had succeeded, and the officials who had championed these measures ascended to new heights of prestige. This is what happened in China and throughout Asia, and it is what happened in Australia and New Zealand. To a lesser extent, it is even what happened in Germany. The next act of this play, is the return of SARS-2, the impending revelation that there was only ever the illusion of control, and a spiral of harsh suppression measures that everyone believes in because they seemed to work last time, even though they’re not working now.
We’ve spent many months speculating about Chinese reasons for locking down Hubei and then promoting lockdowns to the rest of us. While malicious ends shouldn’t be excluded, their behaviour in Shanghai points increasingly to official incompetence and stupidity. The Chinese government has almost surely spent two years sowing horror of Corona among its people, to defend its harsh actions in Wuhan and to collect accolades for its alleged Zero Covid success. Now they are going the route of other Zero Covid regimes. They will double down on worthless policies, until their failure becomes so overwhelmingly evident, that they give up.
Further considerations, developed mostly in the context of a recent conversation with a friend, who is sceptical of my thoughts here:
Is this not better understood as some sort of exercise in new authoritarian methods? I don’t think so, because the Chinese won’t be able to control Omicron, and whatever methods they deploy in their attempts to do so will just be discredited.
Did the Chinese then promote lockdowns to the West, simply out of good will and charity, because they sincerely believe in these policies? No. We may never fully understand their motives, but an important aspect, was probably the fear that the West would ignore Corona, nothing much would happen, and the Hubei lockdown would be discredited. These were policies that had been developed in the belief that China was facing a wider-scale version of the SARS virus from 2003. In early March 2020, it was clear that these fears were exaggerated. Evidently, this does not mean that the institutional (and perhaps also popular) momentum behind Zero-Covid policies vanished. In China, in Australia, everywhere, the lockdowners are empowered, as long as Corona appears to be under control. When Corona endangers this illusion, the lockdowners will fight powerfully to vindicate their policies, but sooner or later they’ll lose.
Doesn’t this destroy your prior hypothesis, that the Chinese escaped the mass containment dilemma entirely, by changing test criteria and perhaps taking other actions behind the scenes to ‘construct’ Corona out of existence? Maybe, but perhaps these aren’t mutually exclusive possibilities. As long as a given virus isn’t having any population-wide impact, it is possible to ignore it. Omicron spreads too fast to be ignored.
Do Chinese officials, with unique knowledge of SARS-2 origins, know something we don’t about the virus? Most of the SARS-2 genome has natural analogues, with a couple of odd tweaks, like the furin cleavage site. There’s not a lot of room for hidden functions in there, and mainland Chinese policies and science have never demonstrated special foreknowledge or awareness of SARS-2 features. If anything, the opposite is true: They overestimated the risk at first, and they seem to persist in this error now.
So you believe the West is stupid, and China is stupid, you just believe everyone is stupid but you I guess? I think institutions in mass society develop behaviours and even ideologies that are beyond the understanding of the individuals who participate in them. Our critical views of containment and mass vaccination are surely shared by many people throughout these institutions, who however find it in their best interests to promote quite different ideas, not reluctantly but even with enthusiasm.
What is it always these boring banal explanations from you? The extent to which Corona resists elaborate conspiratorial theories is a good sign that it is either an emergent phenomenon or epiphenomenal. The most compelling theories are those which cast Corona and containment as the unintended consequences of something else.