In every era, the most popular psychological explanation for human behaviour leans on the most advanced technology at the time. The hard science adds a gloss of solidity to the mushy mess of human feeling and being.
I paraphrase loosely a thought I read somewhere somewhen. Credits to the original author now forgotten by my brain. But consider:
Descartes’ “animals as machines” draws from the automata of his day. Freud’s pressure and repression recall steam engines. Skinner’s behaviourism echoes the primitive electronics of his day. Cognitive psychology reflects advances in computer science.
I’m simplifying and exaggerating for poetic purposes, obviously.
At a certain point, I became struck by the embodied and bodily nature of my own mind. Call it a gastrointestinal theory of the soul, if you will. It’s not sciencey or clinical or technical at all. Like other bodily functions, the mind fills and empties, ingests data, extracts information, and outputs activity and waste. A blurbling, organic, muddly mass of cells and organs and microbiomes producing something resembling thought and a sense, perhaps illusory, of being.
Sometimes a big thought gets lodged and worries at the mind, distending and distorting the space around itself, like a kidney stone or a constipation of the brain.
This has been the case with my thoughts these last few weeks.
This last year. These last few years. It’s been … unusual, eh?
We all talk about the plague of covid-19. This unfortunate disease. Deadly and debilitating enough to bring suffering and loss to millions and millions. In Slovenia 1 in 667 people have now died of this one disease.
Yet not terrifying enough to convince many governments and people to take it seriously. The goldilocks virus.
I’ve seen four covid-19 waves now. Three in Korea. One in Slovenia last Spring. I’ve gone through two quarantines now. I’ve been wearing a KF94 mask in public for over a year.
Every one of those waves was eventually crushed. Even this last, most severe, winter wave in Korea is being forced down.
For me, personally, this plague year brought mild weariness, boredom, and loneliness. Mild, but present. Like a miasma. A bad smell that I might forget, but then suddenly notice again.
It’s unbelievable how frustrating an 8-hour time difference is when you just want to share a zoom coffee or a whatsapp beer with an old friend.
I’ve been lucky. Every wave I experienced, the local government and local society and local people took seriously and, to the best of their abilities considering resources and information available, dealt with.
But when I look outside, at the wider world and the bigger time scale, my frustration is not mild at all. I feel like shouting in disbelief and anguish.
The Plague in Europe, Part 1: Spring 2020
When covid-19 was first discovered and reported by the Chinese government in early January, most European media outlets criticised China for being too late and not doing enough. Big stories about “horrible, scary, strange, exotic” wet markets. Breathless exposes about “apartments welded shut” and “a whole city locked down”. Smug pieces about how this is what you get when you’ve got those filthy other people with their other food and their other government living on top of one another in anthills.
Then the covid-19 plague hit Europe, and everything shut down. All the bars and all the restaurants, all the shops and all activities. For more than two months I couldn’t leave my home town—illegal to travel across county lines except for work—and there’s not much work takes you across county lines when you work online. People and media bleated, “China lied, people died.”
There weren’t enough masks or respirators or protective clothes for nurses and doctors. Panic reigned. Countries stole or held up one another’s medical supplies.
Throughout, European governments and media kept repeating, “just wash your hands and maintain your distance.”
It seems obvious that a lot of this was because the European countries didn’t have enough masks stockpiled or the ability to manufacture any.
By summer, things had settled down, and some semblance of normality had returned. A breathing space for the European governments to take stock, see what worked for them and what didn’t. Figure out how China, South Korea, Taiwan, Japan, Vietnam, and Mongolia managed to control their covid-19 outbreaks.
The Plague in Europe, Part 2: Summer 2020
Or they could decide to focus on the economy. Encouraging tourism with vouchers and coupons. Opening everything up.
Every time a small outbreak flared somewhere in Asia, this was picked up on and pointed out as proof that their approach wasn’t working all that well.
Months were spent trying to decide what to do about masks and discussing how school children couldn’t wear masks because they were too young and didn’t spread the disease anyway. Let’s not even get mention the crazy anti-maskers.
Testing operations were not expanded. Local mask production wasn’t ramped up. Schools and workplaces weren’t prepared. Tracking apps weren’t rolled out.
But, as the summer rolled on, and the numbers stayed low, a lot of folks patted themselves on their backs at how well they had done. Especially compared to that utter collapse unfolding in the USA under the Big Orange Lying Loser.
They seem to have completely ignored all the practices and lessons learned in East Asia. All of them. Too much dissonance, perhaps? Those other people doing other things would have been too hard to learn from?
Autumn would make it clear how well Europe and Slovenia had prepared for the next wave.
The Plague in Europe, Part 3: Autumn and Winter 2020
Autumn started. Schools. Workplaces. Canteens. Numbers started rising. Fast.
By mid-October, numbers peaked in Slovenia because they’d reached testing capacity at around 7,000 tests per day. Since then they’ve regularly been reporting around 2,000 to 3,000 cases per day with 25% to 35% of the tests turning up positive. The death rate has been a pretty stable 1%.
For American readers, Slovenia has the population of Nebraska or New Mexico and is about the size of New Jersey. For Asian readers, Slovenia has the population of Qatar and is about the size of Israel.
In other words, the situation is completely out of control, the virus is everywhere, and people are dying.
Slovenia is doing very badly. But it’s not unique. A lot of other European countries are also doing completely shit. Belgium and San Marino are doing worse in deaths per million. France and the UK are not much better.
Europe’s been in a lockdown again since November, I guess. There might be some variations on the timing, but it doesn’t matter much. It’s an utter collapse.
Yet there is a ray of light—the vaccines. Much sweat has been pounded into keyboards celebrating how the vaccines would solve things. And they will. As they roll out. Over the course of 2021. They’re an amazing achievement, all the vaccines developed against SARS-ncov-19 and starting to be manufactured and rolled out.
Meanwhile, something strange has happened in the media and public discussion in Europe. Or rather, something has not happened or stopped happening.
It’s still full of discussions and articles about the situation in Europe, comparing different European countries, talking about Sweden—but there is almost no talk anymore about the covid-19 plague situation in East Asia. Particularly in China. Just stark, ringing silence.
Almost as though mentioning how things are surprisingly under control here in Asia is … embarrassing? Unfortunate? Shines a bad light on the utter failure of public health interventions in Europe?
As though one shouldn’t mention that the countries here ramped up testing and the production of protective gear over the summer.
South Korea used to have rationing for KF94 masks, but that ended half a year ago, and I now have two score KF94 masks ready by my front door for whenever I go outside. Meanwhile, in Europe, people make do with flimsy surgical masks or homemade cloth masks.
Is Europe so poor that it couldn’t set up a few factories over the summer? Is it so short on manpower that it couldn’t retrain some tourism sector workers to manufacture protective gear? Were they so over-confident they thought they wouldn’t need anything more than a couple of rubber bands and a napkin (https://www.24ur.com/novice/slovenija/drzava-je-za-maske-iz-serviet-placala-860-tisocakov-ali-od-76-do-80-centov-za-masko.html)?
And the United States
I’m not a US citizen, so I try not to comment overmuch. But, let’s be honest. The twice-impeached loser that the US citizens elected as their president in 2016 is a disgusting caricature of everything a man should stand for. Venal. Cowardly. Corrupt. Bullying. Lying. Boastful. Prideful. Vicious. Mean. Cruel. Capricious. Mercurial. Stupid. Ignorant. Self-absorbed. Self-loving. Hateful.
His revolting leadership failure during the plague has killed hundreds of thousands of his citizens, including his supporters.
His failed coup a few days ago, well.
The sooner this vile creature is locked away, the better.
But it doesn’t change the fact that tens of millions of US citizens voted for this vile wrecker. Where the country goes from there, I don’t know. My personal experience with demagogues, conspiracy theory-fuelled movements, and the downfall of Yugoslavia is no comfort. I hope the USA does better.
And the Asia
Meanwhile, over here, we’ve had news that the Korean government is planning to launch flying taxis in 2025. Hyundai is apparently in talks with Apple to manufacture autonomous cars. Electric vehicles are exploding in China. And on the stories roll.
This year has really driven home how East Asia’s future feels optimistic and, well, futurey.
I feel lucky to be here to see it, but also sad to see the politics of Slovenia, in particular, and the West, in general, stuck in a navel-gazing nostalgic past slathered with steaming dollops of bigotry and despair.
So … where do we go from here? I really don’t know.
I hope my country gets its shit together, but I worry it’ll be easier to just close its eyes and pretend its not resigning itself to slow decay. I hope and worry the same for Europe.
But personally, I just hope I can now keep this damn plague and this damned geopolitical turning point of 202X out of the front of my mind for a few weeks.
Oh, and happy new year, everyone.