American vulnerability and American strength

American vulnerability and American strength

Early in the COVID-19 pandemic, people predisposed to believe in conspiracies posited the idea that the coronavirus was a Chinese bioweapon manufactured in a Wuhan laboratory. This was always far-fetched. It seemed and still seems far more likely that the virus leaked accidentally from the lab, where safety procedures were known to be sloppy.

But one counterargument made against the weapon theory, that the virus was not lethal enough, always seemed unpersuasive. Surely, a smart bioweapon made by a hostile power wanting to supplant America as world leader would not kill tens or hundreds of millions of people. It would infect and kill only so many as to guarantee panic and shut down and ruin the enemy’s economy while giving the perpetrator plausible deniability.

In this and other respects, the coronavirus would be a missile perfectly aimed to America’s vulnerabilities. We have become a culture obsessed with personal health issues, looking at almost any problem through a therapeutic lens, and prone to excessive alarm. So many problems, even tiny ones, are now described as “scary” that the word is a motif for our times. An economy-destroying overreaction was foreseeable.

America was especially vulnerable to the coronavirus in another respect. It is a “loose” culture disinclined to follow rules and not happy to be told what to do by government. Individual rights and freedom of action are foundational and in the DNA of our people. Accepting severe restrictions, clamping down on personal choices is just not the American way.

Thus, unlike the “tighter” cultures of East Asia, where people are generally rule-followers, not rule-breakers, America was perhaps always more likely to struggle in controlling the pandemic. It’s a place where citizens would naturally rebel against restrictions sooner, and thus is perhaps more prone to second and third waves of infection and repeated massive economic damage.

Michelle Gelfand, a professor of psychology at the University of Maryland, College Park, studies the tightness and looseness of different cultures. She told me America, being a loose culture of rule-breakers, would have “a harder time flattening the curve” of infection than would, say, Singapore, the tightest culture in the world.

There are tight-loose variations within America, but oddly it is the tighter-cultured states most supportive of President Trump, many of them in the South, that are most resistant to restrictions. Gelfand attributes this to citizens of tight cultures “following the leader,” and thus backing Trump’s insistence that the economy open up. Perhaps that is what it is, although the president has contradicted himself on this repeatedly, and I'd posit that people in tight-cultured states are more likely to be sticklers for the oldest rules — constitutionally guaranteed freedoms — and more determined not to give them up.

Either way, however, if America, with its generally loose culture, was always more vulnerable to the pandemic, so its loose culture also seems likely to be its salvation. Loose cultures are inventive and energetic, more likely to find ways to overcome catastrophe by responding fast to the challenges of a new danger.

The pandemic caught America flat-footed, but we’ve been caught flat-footed before, then adapted quickly and won. This country’s nearly miraculous energy, both a cause and product of its loose culture, contributed mightily, for example, to victory at the Battle of Midway only five months after Pearl Harbor, where we had been caught napping.

Now, from an admittedly low base, the economy is bouncing back faster than expected. Overall, it’s expected to shrink by 6%-7% this year, but there were 3 times as many travelers being screened for flights on May 3 than there had been on April 14. Restaurant bookings have shown a similar upturn in states that allow people to go out for a meal.

America’s loose culture nurtures innovation. Two American companies, Moderna, of Massachusetts, and Novavax, of Maryland, among others, are near the front of the global race to develop a COVID-19 vaccine. Both have begun human trials.

Everywhere, America’s can-do spirit is asserting itself, itching to get going or already surging into new territory to find ways to beat the COVID-19 scourge, either by special adaptations that allow near-normal life to resume even if the virus is with us a long while, or else stretching every sinew in an effort to kill it.

America, a rambunctious, rule-averse nation, was probably uniquely vulnerable at the start of the pandemic. But now, it is probably as well placed or better fitted than any other country to recover. The sleeping giant has been rudely disturbed. But it is once again awake.

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