I want to highlight some important differences between the US and China here. These differences will make the effects of the virus worse in the US than in China.
We have nothing close to the centralized, top-down, obedience-driven culture found in East Asia
China went full totalitarianism on coronavirus yet yet it’s still spreading there. There are literally soldiers outside every apartment complex and store in Wuhan checking people’s temperatures before allowing them to enter or leave. We can’t do a quarter of what China did for cultural and governmental reasons. First, we have far less experience in central planning, which characterizes China’s relationship with construction and urban management. Second, the US does not have a culture oriented toward conformity, rule-following, and obedience to authority. There’s no “clean” way to describe the cultural differences between East and West, but at a bare minimum we can acknowledge that the East submits to central authority and conforms to rules more willingly. You can call this plain conformity, you can call it shame culture, you can call it social harmony, but whatever you call it, the fact is that there is a difference. We will have hundreds or thousands of people defy quarantine measures that are put in place, either due to a rumor, due to spite, or due to some perceived personal need. We know this will happen, because it’s happened whenever curfews have been put in place or large environmental tragedies have hit our cities. We simply do not have the cultural affinity toward obedience to authority that is prevalent in East Asia. This comes with many pluses, of course, but a pandemic is obviously a time where it’s really important to obey authority and follow rules.
Part of the lack of conformity manifests in our work culture. Americans working for state agencies and utility companies are working for a paycheck, without any care for obedience, or a higher nationalistic purpose. A Chinese boss can more easily persuade an employee to tend to a grocery store in the midst of societal collapse. And the government can propagate a feeling of higher purpose toward ~glorious cultural victories~. The American who work for a governmental agency or a service do not have these attributes. And you can say that in China it’s all just propaganda and show, but it really has been internalized by a lot of Chinese workers. I would direct any skeptics to the documentary American Factory (I think on Netflix), particularly the end where they show the lavish company-held celebration. In Chinese cities, people really buy in to the idea of working for the group and for the nation. Far fewer people in America will feel any sense of “duty” to state services. What does this mean? Well, many workers who have a better option will quit working when the virus is bad. Expect your garbage to be picked up? Your mail to be sorted? The ticket booth to be manned? These services will be a lot slower if we get a China-style pandemic.
Additionally, Americans (both on the Left and the Right) are skeptical of the media and the government. This is good in many contexts, but a pandemic isn’t really one of them. Some anti-vaccine moms might find themselves reluctant to report their illness to authorities. Some tea party members might be reluctant to obey quarantines. Some Americans might peddle and buy into conspiracies. God knows what Alex Jones will be saying. In East Asia, these sorts of conspiracies are far more taboo than in America.
Crime and Social Decay
I don’t think most Americans realize how little crime and homelessness East Asia has compared to the US, especially (or mainly) in cities. The police will be reluctant to make contact with anyone who could be sick. Our homeless population will spread disease, pretty much every hour, near every public transit center. And then we have the civil unrest aspect. China doesn’t have (violent) urban gangs. China doesn’t deal with riots. But we do. Crime-ridden areas are going to be upset when stores have stopped opening in areas that are already considered food deserts. You’re probably going to have a few cases of infected people running amok in cities when they realize (1) they’ve been infected, (2) they will die because they’ve been a pack a day smoker for a decade and have diabetes, and (3) they can do whatever they want because the Police Hazmat Unit is already stretched to its limits. Some doctors living in penthouses with families are going to get the out of the cities, instead of risking their families lives to help residents that they might not see themselves obligated to help (cf East Asian nationalism).
Now, not related to crime per se, but when schools close down, what are nurses and doctors going to do? Who is going to watch their kid? Many nurses will have no choice but to stay home and watch their little ones.
Customs & Work Sector Differences
Far fewer food services in the US are family-owned, meaning you might find that the employee base is liable to quit. Many stores in Wuhan have one employee working a family-owned business at a time. In cities across the US, shelves are stocked by 20-somethings who are in school and maybe still surviving partially off of their parents support. Do you think they’re going to continue checking out customers when this hits? They’ll be out, and the manager won’t be able to handle the workload. At any given store you’ll have 10-30% of the employees permanently missing. I’ve worked at packed grocery stores in cities, and these stores will be unable to handle a normal amount of customers with 20% fewer employees, let alone a mass rush on the grocery store when the pandemic hits, all while following more stringent safety measures. Similarly, many restaurant dish washers and city bus drivers are people who literally just got off the doll or out of prison. These guys are likely to stop working, and nobody will be there to replace them. One more thing: grocery store workers do not wash their hands, almost ever. They take your money, and then an hour later will be stocking produce. This is actually how many grocery stores in the US manage time for their employees, with one hour allotted to stocking and another hour at the register. The majority of workers never wash their hands or use hand sanitizer unless they’ve just used the bathroom.
In terms of transit, we’ve replaced dedicated lifelong cab drivers with side-gig uber drivers who are often still being supported by a day job. Many (maybe 15%) of these drivers are going to stop working when the pandemic hits, at a time when everyone will be looking to use the service because of the threat on the subway. The cities are going to have so much traffic it’s unreal, and many people are going to have to walk to do anything when it hits. Also, our public transportation is cleaned less in the US. In China, only 18% of citizens OWN a car, let alone use it daily. In the US, only 8% of Americans don’t own a car, and 85% of Americans get to work in a car. You might think this will help our transmission rate, and you’re right it will help our transmission rate in rural and suburban areas. But it also makes localized quarantines next to useless. Even many Urbanites own cars in America. In order to quarantine a city in the US such that the disease doesn’t spread to other urban areas, you’ll probably need Trump to declare martial law. Let that sink in: if NYC gets hit hard, Chicago and Detroit and other cities would need to ask Trump to declare martial law in order to be unaffected. This pandemic could not come at a worse time politically. Who is going to ask Trump to declare martial law?
In cities across East Asia (not rural areas, but cities), practicing hygiene manners is the norm. They wear masks as a rule when they’re sick, and already in places like Taiwan and Japan you’re more likely to see normal people wear masks than not. It’s impolite to openly cough or talk on transit. These rules do not apply to America. It’s extremely common to board a bus or train and have someone a few seats down from you coughing, doing drugs, sneezing openly, and so on. Our public transit will have a transmission rate 5x that of East Asia, adjusted per capita of course. Note again that East Asia emphasizes rule-following. That is really helpful during a pandemic, because everyone in the society will be hand sanitizing and so on. And let’s not get too into average IQ, but there are average IQ differences between the US and somewhere like Japan or South Korea that do have an effect on ability to follow procedures.
Now let’s talk about food for a moment. China is heavy on communal meals, which surely boosts transmission rates, right? It does, absolutely. But restaurants in the US might have even more hand-to-hand transmission. Touchless Alipay via phone is the norm for paying in many Chinese cities, accounting for half of all purchases in China. In the US, we have touch screen point of sale systems. Do you have any idea how many people working in a restaurant touch the same PoS system? The manager, the waiter, the busboy, and the bartender ALL touch the same PoS system. What else do they touch? Literally every darn thing that gets to your table.
The fallout of the Chinese economy is going to be impacting us severely before it even makes significant inroads here in the US. It’s going to hit us worse when the Chinese pharmaceutical shortage hits full effect. And every doctor or nurse who is questioning whether they should go back home and lay low or whether they should continue working can read stories of thousands of medical workers and even hospital directors being infected and killed by the virus in China. This is one of the reasons the media isn’t reporting on it yet. The timing means that we have access to more information, which means we can’t trick normal people into behaving normally and continuing to work despite the viral threat. They were able to do this in China, but you can’t do it in the US. Also, do you have any idea how many of our pharmaceuticals are made in China? We’ll be hit the worst when the pharmaceuticals start running dry.
Central Planning, Organization, and Capacity
China built one fully-functional hospital in Wuhan in a week and is planned to build 18 more. Say what you want about central planning as a rule, but China has so much practice with building stuff out of nothing. The shortest amount of time we can build a hospital is probably two years. Our construction sector is incompetent compared to East Asias. We will not be able to build anything in time without the military’s help, and our hospitals are already at capacity. To repeat: hospitals across America, without coronavirus, are already at capacity.
Disclaimer: This is a guest post and it doesn’t represent the views of IWB.