The Coming Reverse Iron Curtain

Every century, humanity keeps setting the bar higher for the quality and safety of human life. But progress is uneven. When new innovations come along that improve life, they first rise in a handful of nations. Then all other nations fall into three categories: 1) those without the resources to copy the innovation, 2) those with the resources to copy it who do so, and 3) those with the resources to copy it who don't. The Covid-19 pandemic has shown that the United States has fallen into that third category–something that was already visible starting a few decades ago for those who were looking. This time, our failure is harming or ending millions of lives. Now that it's obvious that America is faltering, how do we fix it?

The Covid-19 pandemic has exposed an incredible new superpower that several nations have developed–and it's one that people have been dreaming of for thousands of years. This is the ability to stop a highly contagious new disease in its tracks, even after it has taken root in many communities across a nation. Each century, pandemics claim tens or even hundreds of millions of lives. This superpower holds the promise of freeing humanity from one of its greatest fears. It is on display in countries including China, Taiwan, South Korea, Japan, Singapore, and Vietnam, where, despite being hit by surprise in many different locations, the virus genie was quickly put back in the bottle.

Last century, the United States was the nation forging most of the new superpowers for others to copy. One of the new superpowers it put on display back then was a mass production economy, supplying countless new comforts like warm homes, personal transportation, and life-saving drugs. Many other countries followed, mainly in Western Europe and East Asia. Some countries failed to add this superpower to their repertoire even though they had the resources and technological know-how to do so. People in those countries eventually became consumed with Anger At Missing Out (AAMO!) and started to emigrate and protest. In response, the falling-behind nations, erected a wall, an "iron curtain," to keep their populations inside, and ramped up state repression and surveillance.

The 21st century pandemic-stopping superpower revealed by countries as diverse as authoritarian China and Singapore and rambunctiously democratic South Korea and Taiwan is going to create AAMO in the United States as Covid-19 rages on with no end in sight. As the U.S. and many other nations gradually stumble toward herd immunity over the course of years, the successful nations will likely make travel restrictions permanent to keep possibly-infected foreigners out. When Americans wake up to the fact that they're on the wrong side of a reverse iron curtain, will they react with China-bashing anger or a quest to copy the new human superpower that would protect us from the next pandemic?

The good news for the U.S. in this case, is that to acquire the pandemic-stopping superpower, we don't need to transform our society, we just need to learn how to use some tools that we already have. The new superpower comes from using simple, now-ordinary technologies like smartphones, Bluetooth, GPS, QR codes, and fast, and on-demand production of custom items (signs, barriers, masks). Not every country with access to these tools will figure out how to use them effectively. Unfortunately, the United States has become the world's shining example of that kind of voluntary failure.

American media coverage of the lockdowns in the successful nations has tended not to focus on the details, but the trick of this new superpower lies precisely in getting a giant mess of details right. Each country, and even each region in each country, has done things very differently–showing that there are many different ways to get this right.

You can get a sense of how this superpower works by watching a very short film made by a Japanese resident of Nanjing, China, Ryo Takeuchi. Notice all the little things that add up to safety from the virus: plexiglass barriers installed in taxis, dividers in restaurants, check-in QR codes inside subway cars and busses, barrier walls with temperature checks thrown up instantly around entire neighborhoods with infections, apps that tell you if you may have been exposed–and so many other low-tech or no-tech tools and practices such as writing down temperatures of employees when they report to work, universal mask-wearing at workplaces, and taping up vents in apartment buildings.

This is hard to imagine for anyone living in the U.S., but all of the laborious measures you'll see in the film were put into place before a single death had occurred in Nanjing, with the same population of New York City, or its province, Jiangsu, with 80 million people. As a result, only several hundred cases ever happened in Jiangsu province, with no deaths. Even if the government underreported cases, there's no question that Nanjing, only 300 miles away from the pandemic origin in Wuhan, had hardly any cases or deaths compared to New York City on the other side of the planet.

In the successful nations, these kinds of measures did not rob citizens of their freedom, but protected it. In most places, economic life continued, with people going to work and continuing to travel as necessary, because the society was able to contact anyone who was exposed to one of the few cases that popped up, and get them into quarantine.

With an appalling lack of curiosity, the U.S. media and many of our leaders have dismissed contact tracing apps as a privacy violation that Americans would never accept. But in many countries, the track and tracing apps have been designed with privacy in mind, using a totally anonymized system. Only recently, months after governments in the successful countries had already rolled out their apps to their entire populations, did tech titans Apple and Google finally start talking about a future system (still in the works) that would do exactly the same thing as, for example, Singapore's open source app that any country can already adapt and use.

One thing to notice about the emergence of the new superpower in successful nations is how dependent it is on fast production of countless custom objects: signs, plexiglass, masks, street barriers. America does have the capacity to make these kinds of things, but we're out of practice and we found it difficult to get new domestic supply chains up and running fast. This difficulty was part of what made it harder for our leaders to imagine taking the kinds of measures that this superpower requires.

Trump's horrendous performances in his daily briefings have allowed Democrats to believe that our failure is a Republican failure. But there was nothing stopping Democratic officials in our major cities and in Democratic-controlled states from putting in place the basic measures that have saved so many cities and provinces in the world from the virus. Instead, in New York for example, long after the threat of Coronavirus had been reported and was fairly well understood, hospitals were still sending people home who showed up with Coronavirus symptoms and had tested negative for all other similar diseases. They sent them home on subways with no guidance to quarantine. We did this for weeks in New York and many other early-hit cities. And we did it while watching the successful nations' fast and meticulous contact-tracing and quarantining systems working to stop the disease.

This may be a Republican talking point, but it is true: in some cases, Democratic leaders were actively telling their constituents to go out and socialize even as the threat was known to be extreme. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio told New Yorkers to go out and enjoy the bars days before they would close. And Andrew Cuomo blasted the idea of shutting down the city as absurd during weeks that he and everyone who read the news closely knew that the number of infections were rapidly doubling.

Some have credited authoritarianism or Asian culture for stopping Covid-19 in the successful nations. But most of the successful countries are free wheeling democracies (for example, South Korea, Taiwan, Australia, New Zealand), while only some are predominantly Asian. Moreover, the Asian nations most successful at stopping Covid-19 were impoverished basket cases only 40 or 50 years ago. If culture is the determining factor, then why did it only start working in recent history?

In the late 1800's and early 1900's, the nations in East Asia that are the most successful today had been declining for many decades. Their wake up call came when American and European gun boats arrived and essentially demanded the right to loot at will. Only one Asian nation avoided conquest or control by foreign powers: Japan. They succeeded because a new generation of leaders bravely acknowledged that Japan would be destroyed if it didn't develop new capacities–and then they managed to take power and guide their nation to develop those capacities. That decision brought prosperity and health to the people of Japan on roughly the same timetable as most of Europe, while most people in China remained stuck in extreme poverty until the 1960's.

So America has a choice to make: turn inward and blame others for our misfortunes, or find and empower a new generation of leaders who will work hard to build up our nation's capacities. Which will it be?