Why Coronavirus Success (And Failure) Reinforces Itself.
Two Reinforcing Feedback Loops
The obvious reason is that the more a virus spreads, the more it… spreads. A virus is harder to contain when there are more people in more places who have it. On the other hand, countries that were able to contain the virus early on, are more likely to keep it that way. I want to explore a few potential feedback loops that explain why.
First take the perspective of a competent state.
First off, a competent state would directly limit/reduce disease spread thanks to fast and accurate testing, tracing infrastructure, mask/PPE availability, etc. So more state competence directly leads to less disease spread.
High state competence, and approval contribute to trust in the state’s basic ability to govern effectively. More trust means more compliance which means less disease spread. More compliance also means less need for harsh crackdowns.
There are two reinforcing feedback loops I want to isolate and discuss.
First Reinforcing Feedback Loop (R1)
R1: More Approval means more trust, which means more compliance, which means less disease spread, which means more approval and so on.
If prevention procedures are successful the, people are more willing to follow them. Success becomes a self fulfilling prophecy. Lockdown is worth it because when it’s over we get to go back to normal.
Second Reinforcing Feedback Loop (R2)
More approval means more trust. More trust means more compliance. More compliance means there is less need for harsh crackdowns. Fewer harsh crackdowns means more approval.
Countries that took Coronavirus seriously and had the institutional capability to take appropriate action were able to reap the benefits of these virtuous feedback loops. These benefits include the lives of their people, and the quick recovery of their economy. I feel the need to emphasize this point, because there was/is a troubling idea that the best way to maintain a strong economy is for everyone to act as though coronavirus doesn’t exist.
Which brings us to the perspective of an incompetent state.
Of course the lack of PPE, testing and tracing infrastructure, etc. contribute to disease spread, but more importantly the same virtuous cycles become vicious.
Low state approval means less trust in the state, which means less citizen compliance, which means more disease spread, which means less state approval.
The implication of this vicious cycle is that as time goes on each successive failure to contain the Coronavirus only increases the likelihood of failure in the future. Why bother sacrificing your social/work life if the numbers keep going up anyway?
Social distancing transforms from a collective endeavor based on a shared objective to an individual endeavor based on your personal aversion to risk.
Just as success becomes a self fulfilling prophecy in a competent state, failure becomes a self fulfilling prophecy in a failed state. Failure after successive failure contributes to pandemic burnout. Pandemic Burnout is the death knell of compliance.
Less citizen compliance could lead the state to crackdown more harshly to increase compliance, which may work, but would almost certainly reduce the state’s popularity, trust in the state and ultimately citizen compliance, which could defeat the purpose. That’s not to say harsh crackdowns are inherently counterproductive, it just means they require a cost benefit analysis.
A counterproductive crackdown would be a “Fixes that Fail” archetype. Low compliance leads to crackdowns which increase compliance in the short term, but in the long term reduces approval, reduces trust, and ultimately reduces compliance.
So what’s the solution?
It seems that all along the solution to Coronavirus is having a functioning state apparatus, which is willing to assert its authority when necessary, and a population that is willing to cooperate with it for their collective benefit.
The problem is that cooperation requires trust, which can’t simply be asserted by the state. It must be earned via some historical source of credibility. For the United States I don’t know what in the last 40 years that source could be. In the decades since the Volcker Shock, the only governmental achievement has been its own ceremonial bipartisan dismemberment at the expense of the majority. It doesn’t help that being inherently anti government is an essential part of the American political mythos.
My conclusion from all this is that it’s too late for this crisis. We failed to contain the virus, we’re facing down an eviction crisis, and bread lines are back. Plenty of countries are struggling, but given our wealth and resource advantage our failure is uniquely disqualifying. Coronavirus killed more Americans than the Vietnam War, and then did it four more times. Any notion of “beating the virus” is a fantasy. We just have to hold it together until we get an ex machina likely in the form of a vaccine.
It would be wrong to write a condemnation of the US’s coronavirus response without giving a shout out to the sitting president. Trump’s downplaying of the disease, combined with the misinformation he peddled surely exacerbated the spread. However it would also be wrong to use Trump to deflect criticism from the American political system itself.
First of all, these seeds were sown at least a few years before he came into office. Secondly, trying to separate Trump from the American Political system is incoherent, because the American political system is what produced him. He’s the president. Whether we blame the political economy of the media, the incompetence of Democratic Party leadership, or the antidemocracy of our electoral system, the issue is as American as apple pie.
The pandemic has exposed a harsh divide between countries that can handle a crisis, and countries that can’t. Governments that can, have increased their legitimacy with respect to their citizens. Governments that can’t have similarly reduced their legitimacy at a time it is sorely needed. Much like facts, the novel Coronavirus doesn’t care about our feelings. We need to have an honest reckoning with our failure as a nation, if we are to be prepared for the next crisis. One possible way to repair our reputation would be to actively improve the standard of living of our own citizens. More on that here.