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“We’re Seeing the Breakdown of Collective Responsibility”

Kenneth Pomeranz

Western states’ response to the coronavirus pandemic has been far inferior to East Asian countries’ — illustrating their inability to cope with major crises. China scholar Kenneth Pomeranz spoke to Jacobin about the decline of collective responsibility and the dangers of future pandemics.

A woman during the anti-mask and anti-vaccine "Freedom Rally" in New York City on March 20, 2021. (Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Interview by
Arjun Chaturvedi

Kenneth Pomeranz is University Professor of History at the University of Chicago, specializing in the social, economic, and environmental history of modern China and the world. His classic work, The Great Divergence, helped to reshape the debate on capitalist development by examining comparative histories of China and Europe in the making of the modern world economy. He is currently working on a book titled Why Is China So Big?

In this interview for Jacobin, Pomeranz discusses the worsening of social and economic inequalities during the COVID-19 pandemic. He offers possibilities for confronting the challenges of the age of pandemics, but also provides a warning about the failure of states to make political choices to improve the global condition.


I want to begin by asking if you think there are links between climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic?


I’m not sure how much climate change per se has contributed to the pandemic. I think the real issue is what this pandemic shows us about the next one, which may well have something to do with climate change.

We’re looking at a whole new disease environment unfolding over the next couple decades, as various insects and other species become able to survive in climates that used to be too cold for them. Plus, the Anthropocene is about much more than climate change. It also includes habitat loss for various species, which certainly increases the risk that there will be another bat, deprived of its usual food, that will be in contact with a farm animal, or the risk that something will pass from monkeys to humans. The combination of habitat loss and ever greater population densities of people, poultry, and pigs in certain parts of the world will mean that the risks get greater and greater, especially within that corridor from northern Vietnam to Shanghai.

Even the societies that were best prepared pretty narrowly dodged a bullet — things could have been an awful lot worse and could still get there with variant strains. We are likely to be entering into an era where pandemics will be more frequent.


Can the relationship between the United States and the World Health Organization (WHO) be saved after the Trump administration?


It will be interesting to see if the World Health Organization comes out of this in better shape, because it’s at least one place where the Biden administration will make a difference. They will recommit to WHO pretty quickly, and maybe the organization will be even stronger for people, having seen how essential it was — but that’s not guaranteed. There is certainly some resentment of the way in which they let China get away, in the early phases, with telling the rest of the world stuff that wasn’t true. You could imagine that organization being seriously weakened.


How have social and economic relations gotten worse during the pandemic?


If you think about various forms of hate that have been exacerbated by the pandemic, it’s not as bad as one might have feared. Maybe that’s a sign that, dare I use the word, there’s actually been some progress. But there is still quite a bit of ugliness, and it’s not over yet, especially in the United States. It’s so hard to disentangle COVID-related hate from the other kinds of white nationalism and Trumpist hate.

You could easily imagine a lot more unpleasantness down the road in India, given the ways in which Muslims have been blamed for spreading the virus there. Meanwhile, I looked at the World Bank numbers recently and they’re now saying somewhere around 115 million more people worldwide will be thrown into extreme poverty — that is, they will be pushed under $1.90 a day — and almost half of those are in South Asia. That’s a really grim thought given what is already a pretty explosive political situation and a government that is as likely to stoke the hate as to repress it.


What are your thoughts on the long-term implications of track and trace technologies?


My guess is that it is going to speed up trends that were already there. In a place like the People’s Republic of China, the pandemic has been an excuse to speed up the collection of all kinds of biometric data, but the government was going to do that anyway. In other places, I think there’s a vigorous enough civil society, and ways for people to push back against the government, that there’s a reasonable chance the pandemic won’t turn out to be the camel’s nose under the tent.

I think the pandemic is showing us where state-society relations were already headed. Unfortunately, there are not that many places with a trend toward greater privacy. It will be interesting to see to what extent people are able to keep certain data that has been collected this time around from being used in other ways. We also have to remember it’s not only governments. Presumably, it’s both states and corporations. Amazon and Google are collecting even more data than before as people are ordering online because they don’t want to go to the store.


Why do you think developed countries like the United Kingdom and the United States have had such out-of-control outbreaks, while other countries have been able to flatten the curve in a sense?


The contrast between most of the developed Western countries and Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong, South Korea, Singapore, China, Vietnam, and Thailand is pretty stunning. It spans a very wide range of regimes. I mean you can’t just say: “Oh, that’s because they have these extremely powerful states forcing them to comply with public-health measures.” For example, the Japanese state was really pretty hamstrung, and it has a very old population and a very dense set of urban centers. Yet it’s done quite well. Taiwan has been remarkably successful despite very high densities.

I think one has to figure that some of the story in the West really is the breakdown of state structures, but also, at least to some extent, the breakdown of — for lack of a better term — a popular enlightenment consensus. Of a sense that: hey, if all the epidemiologists at the leading institutions say that you should wear masks, well, then, even if it’s a pain in the neck, you should wear masks. Unlike places like South Korea and Taiwan, the United States and Western Europe no longer face either a real or even much of an imagined geopolitical threat; that can be liberating, of course, but it has also eroded solidarity, and freed some of the most irresponsible elements on the Right to be even more irresponsible in promoting narrow-minded selfishness.

Maybe there is something more fundamental about the kind of rot that has occurred in most of the Western democracies, including Western semi-democracies like Mexico, where you have had a very similar kind of prevalence of denialism.

I’m not quite sure what it is that accounts for this sort of breakdown of what had been a vague enlightenment consensus. Obviously, social media has something to do with it, and in the United States, certain specific regulatory moves like the Telecommunications Act of 1996, the end of the fairness doctrine for media, and so on. In the United States, certain very powerful people realize that there is no way that they can get a majority for their actual agenda. So they have to blow an awful lot of smoke, and some of that smoke is racist, some of that smoke is other stuff, and some of it is an anti-elite rhetoric that says: the elites aren’t the people with a billion dollars, the elites are people with a postgraduate degree and they’re the ones you should hate.

There are a lot of people who feel, often correctly, that they have been shafted. They used to work in, say, timber, and the timber industry is a mess, or they had a small dairy farm and it just isn’t competitive anymore. But they don’t so much resent the richest behemoths, because those people aren’t imaginable to them. What they really resent is the guy from their hometown who got better grades than they did, went to college, went to law school, and is now a regulator for the state Environmental Protection Agency and is imposing additional costs on the lumber mill that they once worked at. Powerful interests have been very successful in making people really resent people like that, and that’s clearly linked, in complex ways, to all sorts of hostility to science and any kind of collective responsibility.


As we have entered what Mike Davis has called the age of pandemics, what can you say about the future?


I think there’s a very real chance that we are entering an age of more frequent pandemics. I’m not an epidemiologist, obviously, and I would also point out that we have a lot of new and improved tools for dealing with some of this stuff.

Technologically, we can engineer a vaccine a lot faster than we used to, but the technology is also there to fight climate change; it’s a question of political will. Do we have to be this dependent on fossil fuels? Absolutely not. Do we have to get our meat, or get our protein in this kind of factory-farming way? Certainly not to this extent. We have the means to do something about a lot of this stuff. Obviously, we have the means, when the next pandemic strikes, to take better care of people who can’t afford to lose income so that they don’t do things that increase the risk to both themselves and us.

Once again, everybody’s favorite example is Kerala. It’s a pretty poor place, but they have made the decisions to invest in the right sorts of things. Their death rate per capita is about 5 percent of the global average, despite the fact that it’s very densely populated, pretty poor, and, unlike a lot of India, actually has a fairly old population. We have the means both to head off some of the causes and to be more resilient when the new pandemics do hit, but that’s going to take very different political choices from the ones that are being made right now in most of the world.

I have spent a substantial portion of my adult life looking at one thing after another and saying, “Well, surely now this will bring people to their senses.” Particularly, as an American, saying, “This kind of crazy disdain for the collective can’t go on forever and people will see that.” And you know — I haven’t been right yet.