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The totalitarian temptations of Covid

The US psychologist Michelle Gelfand wrote recently in The Guardian (2.2.21) about different cultural responses to the pandemic.


Steve Latham


She suggests that “tight” societies, with high levels of adherence to rules, reacted better to Covid than “loose” societies, which demonstrated weaker rule-keeping.

This is part of her wider theory, expressed in the book “Rule makers rule breakers”; which we can witness in different experiences of coronavirus.

States with strong traditions of conformity to cultural norms have overall fared better than those which are more libertarian and individualistic.

It would be superficial to see this as a matter of East versus West, and yet there is some truth such a generalisation.

Nevertheless there are other factors, as theologian John Milbank pointed out in a critical tweet: levels of poverty, health inequality, and political error are other factors.

While true, the first two considerations surely apply as much, for example, to Asian countries as European and North American ones.

In mitigation also of possible cries of ethnic stereotyping, the Korean-German philosopher, Byung-Chul Han, has made a similar point, that societies with collectivist mentalities have done better.

Gelfand, however, maintains that this is not a determinist model, since places like New Zealand have managed to switch from a wildly individualist ethos to a strict policy of national isolation. Her point is that such radical measures will actually make a return to openness more certain and more rapid.

Such findings do not necessarily entail either Right-wing or Left-wing approaches. The position will be attractive to conservatives who have long opined about the loss of social norms.

But it could also play on socialist notions of collective endeavour for the common good. Both ideological options have been sorely lacking, for example, in UK and US responses thus far.

Here, the combination of governmental dithering, under pressure from libertarians, and the reluctance of many citizens to obey restrictions, have contributed to regular waves of re-infection.

However, there is an authoritarian flip-side to this theory. The Chinese sci-fi film, “The wandering Earth”, for example, is a great piece of movie-making, rivalling Hollywood.

A hard-tech disaster film, it posits that, as the sun threatens to expand and destroy the solar system, the earth is set free from its orbit and, propelled by massive “earth engines”, is piloted into space.

The plot hinges around the threat of earth colliding with Jupiter, and humanity’s collective efforts to prevent it. Its relevance to Gelfand’s thesis, is a brief mention about the cost of loosing earth from its orbit, which involved also ceasing its rotation.

The resultant tsunamis kllled half the world’s population, thus enabling the rest to survive in underground bunkers.

What group possesses the necessary power and resolve to take such a momentous decision? Surely not our western democracies, as demonstrated in their response to Covid.

But perhaps the Chinese Communist Party. They have proved themselves capable of such drastic measures, as witnessed in Hong Kong and Xinjiang.

Does this mean the cost of survival is therefore surrender to totalitarian control?

(Photos: Pixabay)

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