During the current pandemic, we would be better off ignoring what politicians are saying. Here is why.
It may seem counter-intuitive, especially for Westerners, to imagine solutions bubbling up from the people because we are used to thinking of our smart, competent leaders providing solutions to all our social problems. In the West, arriving at a solution is a top-down process. This is why, when American auto executives visited Japanese factories, they were surprised to find a mechanism that allowed factory workers to quickly provide feedback and suggest solutions to the management.
Wikipedia too can be thought of as a bottom-up process of finding answers. Unlike traditional encyclopedias, Wikipedia allows anyone to contribute answers, and the truth bubbles up to the top.
In the current crisis, the best example of this bottom-up process is the now-ubiquitous concept of “flattening the curve.” It wasn’t because a wise political leader of some nation promoted it that it became the golden standard of fighting the pandemic. The concept existed before this crisis, and it bubbled up to the surface on social media.
The final decision and the order may come from our political leaders, but their opinions and words of assurance or alarm can only distort the truths we need to know in order to protect ourselves and others. I’ve only seen a few short clips of Trump and Cuomo. I haven’t seen any clips of de Blasio. Whenever they made decisions, I found out about them via NYC’s email announcements. They have been more than sufficient. I see no point in listening to what they have to say about the current crisis.
And, here are some reasons why listening to them can worsen our problems:
Politics, especially in the US, is closely tied to our identities. Some universities have shown that one of the best predictors for whether roommates can get along was their political orientation. Because politics has become a team sport, if you identify yourself as a liberal, it is more important to align your position with the predominant position of your party than to formulate your own opinion on the matter. Dissent is seen as immoral, but a pandemic is not an election; we cannot arrive at the best solution by uniting with others. We have to start with a diversity of opinions and have a process that would allow the best ones to bubble up to the surface. Unfortunately, this is not what is happening in the US because too many people are listening to their political leaders. Suppression of diversity in favor of unity is a dangerous game to play for this crisis. We should avoid at all costs politicizing the problems we are facing.
For instance, because Trump has been eager to restart the economy, anyone who tries to balance the damage between human life and the economy is seen as an enemy belonging to Trump’s camp. If the opinion is coming from within a liberal community, it is perceived as a dangerous threat that could undermine its unity. But what if some of what Trump said were true? Hitler was a vegetarian; does that make vegetarianism evil?
People who hate working tend to interpret the idea of restarting the economy as billionaire capitalists forcing the poor to go back to the jobs they hate, endangering their health and lives. Their personal feeling about work is serving as the foundation for their political and moral positions without realizing this bias.
For many people, jobs are their livelihood. Before the nationwide closure of schools, many kids never thought they would miss going to school. Now they realize how much their livelihood depends on the thing they thought they hated. Likewise, many adults want to get back to work. Even if some do not, in order to enjoy their normal life again, they would need other people to go back to work. Reopening the economy is not the same as slave owners forcing their slaves back to work. If you listen to people like Trump, it can sound like that, but it doesn’t mean he is wrong.
Obviously, we need to discuss the best way and timing (not Easter!) to reopen the economy, and doing so, unfortunately, will involve some sacrifices in human life. But not restarting the economy will also lead to countless deaths through other means, especially in impoverished nations.
Unfortunately, most Americans are concerned only about protecting their own citizens. This is why we are shamelessly stealing masks and ventilators that were slated for other countries, and taking them away from poorer countries by bidding higher.
During normal times, if there is a humanitarian disaster in a developing country, the developed nations feel a moral obligation to help them. With COVID-19, the problem is global. All the developed nations are struggling simultaneously. If we are not willing to going back to work and risk our lives, we will see unabated humanitarian disasters everywhere. Millions could die. If we expect China to risk their own citizens for us, we must also be willing to risk ours.
And, over time, the products and services we deem as “essential” will keep increasing as our current supplies run out, for instance, all the supplies needed to maintain our subway cars and busses. If they cannot maintain the cars, what we currently call “essential workers” won’t be able to get to work. Who would be making the screws and lubricants if everyone decided to stay inside the walls? Not everything the world needs is produced in China. China too depends on us for many things, and so does the rest of the world.
This is a time when we need to set aside our political allegiance and unity. Let us contribute our unique perspectives and let the best solutions bubble up to the surface for our leaders to execute.
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