The Bitter Medicine of Social Distancing

Covid-infused ire against Chinese Americans is as ironic as it is misplaced and lamentable. Countries in the Chinese cultural sphere do better at eating the bitter medicine of social distancing. Two traditions in Chinese culture contribute to this. One is that of reclusion. When events are not in accord with the Mandate of Heaven, retiring to the mountains for a life of self-cultivation becomes a most prestigious strategy. The other tradition is that of Legalist philosophy. Legalism helped shape a collection of warring states into a more unified political body, which became China. The philosophy can be summed up in the one sentence: “If there are no small crimes there will be no big crimes.” The idea is to nip things in the bud.

In Singapore, whose judicial system draws both on Confucian and Legalist sources, one gets 20 years for spitting on the street. Singapore also displayed an impressively flat first-wave epidemiological curve. Taiwan and Hong Kong were able to tamp down their first-wave curves as well. For this one must be able to “eat bitter,” an ability the Chinese have long claimed that Americans lack.

The war against any virus is two-pronged: Isolate it (by social distancing) and out-tech it, through vaccine. In the first strategy all players are of equal value, as in the game of go (wei chi), wei chi our defensive chi, or immunity. The prerequisite for not passing a virus on is not to get it. The second strategy is more hierarchical, like chess, where players possess different values. The pharm lab that first makes a vaccine available is like a Queen in a chess game.

Wars against viruses yo-yo back and forth between these two strategies. Social isolation buys time and flattens the curve so that medical systems do not become overburdened. During those precious days and months scientists are hard at it in the labs. Thus it is dangerous when influential politicians are not able to eat bitter. One could say they are not acting in accordance to the Mandate of Heaven.

Time for all good Taoist poets to retire to the hills and cultivate what is innate. They may forget what dynasty they are in, but they will know which wild greens to cook up after the spring rains.


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