Ever since President Joe Biden ordered U.S. intelligence agencies to investigate reports that the Covid-19 virus might have escaped from a laboratory in Wuhan, commentators have argued over what difference it makes if the theory turns out to be right. Here’s why the answer matters: The discovery that the virus had a human origin would give the coronavirus saga what it’s lacked: a villain.
And that’s a problem.
If a virus that has killed nearly 600,000 people in the U.S. and close to 4 million around the world turns out to have escaped from a laboratory in China, the formless fear that has immobilized most of the world for the last year and a half, at last given a target, might coalesce into fury.
And fury, when widely shared, is hard to control.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s important to know the truth, and some degree of anger might be good for us. One of the many tragic features of the pandemic has been the way that efforts at public dialogue about causes, remedies, and, yes, whether the virus itself might be human-made, were for the most part stilted and lost, the angry murmurings of a people all but immobilized by anxiety.
To be sure, we sought villains as best we could: The whole mess was Donald Trump’s fault, the shutdowns were a power grab by blue elites, the real problem was bureaucratic incompetence. But this was mostly the performance of pain without adequate information.
We can include in this category the pretense that scientists were certain that Covid-19 was not of human origin — and that those who suggested otherwise were dangerous cranks. That fantasy was exploded by the meticulous reporting of the veteran science writer Nicholas Wade in an article published in May in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Wade’s persuasive case that the novel coronavirus escaped containment at the Wuhan Institute of Virology — which was conducting research on altering viruses so they would more easily jump from animals to humans — has reopened a debate we should have been having all along. Biden’s order is a consequence.
But here’s where one might worry. Research on risk perception shows that we tend to fear human-made harms more than natural ones, even when the natural ones have greater likelihood or severity. Some research suggests that human-made harms make us angrier too.
The distinction makes sense. It’s easy to hate, say, a terrorist group like ISIS. There’s no point in hating an earthquake.
But anger generally doesn’t do us any favors. Some people think better when they’re angry; most think worse. Moreover, there’s a well-known finding in social science that anger leads us to be irrationally optimistic about our ability to solve a problem.
It may be, as Ross Douthat has suggested, that a confirmation that the Covid-19 virus escaped from a Chinese laboratory would lead to a major propaganda advantage in the geopolitical battle over hearts and minds. Such victories matter. But they’re not likely to satisfy the all-too-literal American mind, which, when roused to anger, invariably seeks more concrete satisfactions: invade this, regulate that, throw so-and-so in jail. Anger seeks catharsis, often in the urge to “do something.” Lots of bad policy is driven that way.
The Sept. 11 experience offered a catharsis because the nation was able to strike back. On the other hand, the intensity of national fear and anger created an atmosphere in which it was difficult to engage in serious public debate about the merits of the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.
What about regulation? Perhaps evidence that Covid-19 was of human manufacture would bring about international consensus that all experiments on viruses that might jump to humans should be carried out at a higher level of biohazard safety. As Wade points out, however, the problem is often less what the rules demand than what researchers find convenient. (It’s not as though deadly viruses have never escaped containment in the West.)
Besides, as the British astrophysicist Martin Rees reminds us in his 2003 book “Our Final Hour,” rules are not universally followed. No matter how strictly we regulate the handling of dangerous microbes, Rees writes, “the chances of effective enforcement, worldwide, are no better than current enforcement of laws against illegal drugs.” Just a single rule-breaker, he notes, “could trigger widespread disaster.”
Which is to say that even if the Covid-19 virus didn’t escape from an improperly contained lab, sooner or later one will.
Which brings me to my final thought.
Biden’s order to the intelligence agencies was a good thing. But the 90-day deadline smacks of political theater. The U.S. needed two decades to figure out what went wrong at Pearl Harbor. We had trouble tracking Osama bin Laden to a compound he had reportedly occupied for five years. That we will uncover the truth about the origin of the pandemic in three months seems … unlikely.
If the Covid-19 virus does turn out to have escaped from a Wuhan laboratory, even by accident, the world will erupt in fury. The pressure to “do something about it” — to find a way to punish China for its negligence and its coverup — will be intense. So here’s my modest suggestion, should that unhappy situation arise: Whatever we decide to do, let’s take the time to think things through, rather than acting out of unreasoning anger.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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Sarah Green Carmichael at [email protected]
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