The Biblical Roots of Our Pandemic Response: The Chinese Alternative

Over the past week, three approaches to the widespread availability of anti-Covid-19 vaccinations have crossed my desk. One was the comical music video (above) celebrating a supposed post-vaccine normalcy including a return to restaurants, movies, gatherings with family members, friends, grandchildren and mask-less interaction with the world at large. I couldn’t help smiling and laughing at my own relieved celebration of freedom’s prospect after more than a year of quarantine restrictions.

The second approach however was more sobering. It was an essay by Ernesto Burgio published in the Wall Street Journal’s Science and Technology International Magazine. Its basic message was “Not so fast; the human race is not nearly out of the woods.”

The third slant on the expected end of our current crisis returned me to the world of comedy and entertainment – to Bill Maher of all people and his recent riff on China’s competition with the United States (see below). He called it “We’re Not ‘Losing’ to China – We Lost.” Without saying so, Maher’s thesis implied that China’s system of governance holds much more promise of dealing with Burgio’s dire warnings than does our own.

Finally, and speaking specifically as a theologian, the three pieces just referenced caused me to jump to a fourth level, a spiritual one. The leap had me concluding that nothing less than a China-inspired change in the West’s guiding spiritual mythology will save us from destruction.

Let me explain.

The 1st Anthropocene Pandemic

In his Wall Street Journal piece, Burgio pointed out that scientists have been predicting something like SARS-CoV2 pandemic for the last 20 years.  In fact, Covid is merely the most dramatic manifestation of a long-expected more general biological crisis resulting from a two-century long “War on Nature” – from what Pope Francis has called a systemic attack on humankind’s “Common Home.”

In recent memory, pandemic precursors have already surfaced as outbreaks of:

  • Ebola
  • Nipah
  • Hendra
  • Marburg
  • Flu-Orthomyxoviruses
  • Bat-Coronaviruses
  • SARS 1
  • H1N1
  • HIV AIDS

Covid-19 and those predecessors along with the pandemics to follow are the consequence of climate change, deforestation, and the creation of mega-cities that pack humans together in circumstances redolent of our related mistreatment livestock on factory farms.  The upshots of it all were prepared by related culturally induced comorbidities such as obesity and diabetes exacerbated by unhealthy diets dominated by sugars, salt, oils, and chemical preservatives.

According to Burgio and in view of such systemic causal links, it is senseless to seek salvation primarily in pharmaceutical remedies (including vaccines). What’s demanded instead is systemic reform of the post-modern lifestyle including rejection of fossil fuels, adoption of environmentally friendly diets (with drastically reduced meat consumption), and careful restoration of animal habitats and ecosystems.

The problem is, such radical lifestyle reforms are virtually impossible for capitalist cultures like the one found in the United States, the most powerful causal engine of environmental destruction. Especially here, where private enterprise is king, there is simply no central authority powerful or effective enough to institute the rapid comprehensive changes required to head off future pandemics, much less to save the planet. Indeed, half the American population cannot bring itself to even recognize that the pandemic is real, that human activity causes climate change, or that we’ve indeed transitioned into a new (Anthropocene) geological age.

And that brings me to Bill Maher’s observations suggesting that any hope that the human race might have lies with China.

The Chinese Promise

The title of Maher’s piece says it all: “We’re Not ‘Losing’ to China; We Lost.” That’s because (in Maher’s words) unlike us, when Chinese authorities see a problem, they fix it. For example, and specifically relevant to Covid-19, when the pandemic hit, they threw up a quarantine center with 4000 rooms in 10 days. They made robots to check children’s temperatures and got them back in school almost immediately. As a result, China has returned to something close to normal. It will be the world’s only major economy to register significant growth during this extraordinary year.

In fact, Maher’s rant echoes what Burgio himself pointed out in his essay when he said:

“. . . it is an indisputable fact that Asian countries, first of all China, but also South Korea, Japan, Cambodia, Vietnam, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore have been able to stop the pandemic in the bud. It is also clear, to refute those who say that only authoritarian governments have been able to stop the pandemic by limiting civil liberties in a coercive and sometimes violent way, that Cuba, Australia, New Zealand, Iceland have done the same and have had very few deaths and minimal economic costs. All these countries have implemented precise strategies to contain the chains of infection, tracking and monitoring systems, organized quarantine areas and departments specifically dedicated to medium-severe and critical cases, implementing the gold standard in the management of pandemics: focusing on and strengthening primary health care.”

So, if it wasn’t because of the “authoritarian” character of its government, how explain China’s flexibility not only in dealing with Covid-19, but with its short-order elimination of extreme poverty, its rapid development of infrastructure, and its uniquely effective “foreign aid” as demonstrated in its Belt and Road Initiative?

Answering that question brings me to the earlier-mentioned realm of theology and spirituality. The answer is that China’s “Civilization State” (and eastern culture in general) is more effectively spiritual than anything found in western “Nation States.”

Spiritual Resources

The fact is that Chinese culture deeply influenced by Marxism recognizes more clearly than do westerners the truth of Burgio’s starting point – his approving reference to Pope Francis’ recent encyclicals (Laudato Si’, and Fratelli Tutti) with their defense of the earth as humankind’s “Common Home.”

Instead, the West’s individualism and emphasis on competition prevents it from embracing anything resembling Francis’ appeal to the common good. This has been especially so since its endorsement of Margaret Thatcher’s dictum: “There’s no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look after themselves first.”

Regrettably, Thatcher’s point is supported by the fundamental Judeo-Christian myth of creation. As interpreted by Augustine, it spins the tale of our first parents’ “original sin” that corrupted all humans and all of creation as well.

If we’ve been told from birth that we’re all corrupt and that nature itself has been vitiated, why would we be surprised to see one another as enemies with whom cooperation (vs. competition) is impossible? Why would we be surprised that we harbor rapacious attitudes towards Mother Nature herself or that we easily excuse governmental depravity?

Obviously, China (along with most eastern cultures) does not believe any of that. As a result, in the name of the common good and with support from the vast majority of its people, it can turn on a dime when faced with problems like the Covid-19 pandemic. As Maher says, “When the Chinese see a problem, they fix it.”

By contrast, our culture with its crippling spirituality and adversarial conception of democracy finds itself gridlocked into a syndrome of discord and immobilizing cross-purposes.

Conclusion

As Burgio says, Covid-19 is not a mere bump in the road. Instead, it represents a “syndemic” – an entire set of health-related problems involving myriad interacting afflictions that cannot be cured by hospital-centric health systems whose ultimate response is technological and pharmaceutical.

Ultimately, the response must be spiritual and civilizational. We must face the fact that normalcy is gone. “Vaccine Day” happy talk won’t save us. Nor will attempts to defeat, stifle, control or replace China as the world’s emerging leader not only economically, but spiritually as well. Only fundamental change along the lines of China’s flexibility and efficiency inspired by notions of common good and common home can save us now.