China and the Covid: a Memetic Analysis




Despite signs that the rise in the number of cases is stalling, the Chinese lockdown in Shanghai and other cities continues, with hundreds of millions of people forced into their homes or in quarantine centers. What’s happening? I argue that the Chinese government may have acted — and still be acting — according to a military perception of the pandemic.  

A “meme” is a small unit of information that can easily move from one human mind to another. It is the virtual equivalent of a virus in the sense that it “infects” people and influences their behavior. To explain the concept, maybe the best way is with an example: how my grandmother was absolutely convinced that nobody ever should drink a glass of milk without having boiled it first. She was infected with a meme that we could describe as “boil the damn milk.” It was simple and direct, but, unfortunately, completely useless when, in the 1960s, pasteurization had become common. 

Memes are a common strategy for us to survive in a complex world. My grandmother was not stupid, she was simply applying a tested method to deal with things she knew little about. The idea of this strategy is to condense knowledge into simple sentences, easy to memorize and transmit. The problem is that memes can be (or become) wrong or obsolete, and yet they are very difficult to dislodge. In the photo, you see Colin Powell, in 2003, showing a vial of baby powder while maintaining that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. Hundreds of thousands of people were killed largely on the basis of a meme that turned out to be completely false. 

The Covid pandemic is another case of a complex story that most of us — including decision-makers — are unprepared to understand. Our leaders should be trained in microbiology, medicine, epidemiology, and more — no way! So, they rely on simplified snippets to guide their everyday activities. “Wear the damn mask,” “stay home,” “don’t kill granny,” “flatten the curve,” and the like. 

Much of what has happened with the Covid pandemic in the Western World can be understood as a battle of memes for space in the human “memesphere.” To understand the elements of this battle, we need to think that all memes have a story. That’s true for the one that led my grandmother to always boil her milk, and also well for the “lockdown” meme. But whereas the first (“boil the damn milk”) was harmless, the second (“lock everybody in their homes”) can do a lot of damage. It did, and it is still doing damage in China with the recent massive lockdowns of Shanghai and other cities. So, where does this meme come from? Its origin can be found in the evolution of the concept of “biological warfare.” But let’s go in order. 

The Militarization of Genetics 

Biological weapons have been around for a long time in history. Ancient writers tell us of cadavers of infected people shot into a besieged city using catapults. It was probably spectacular, it doesn’t seem to have been ever common or effective. The problem with biological weapons is similar to that of chemical weapons. They are difficult to direct against specific targets, and always carry the risk of backfiring. So, in modern times they were almost never used and, in 1972, a convention was enacted that outlawed biological warfare. That seemed to be the end of the story. But things were to change.  

You see in  Google Ngrams how the interest in biological weapons started to grow from the 1980s, onward.


The interest as measured by the Ngrams seems to have been declining in recent times, but that’s not the case for the scientific literature, as you may see by using Google Scholar or the Web of Science. The figure shows the number of papers dedicated to biological weapons (note that years go right to left and that the 2022 data are still incomplete.)

The origin of the renewed interest in bioweapons lies with the development of modern genetic manipulation technologies, supposed to be able to create new, and more deadly germs. The idea revolutionized the concept of biological warfare: what if you can “tailor” a virus on specific ethnic groups, or even on single persons? That remains, for now, in the realm of science fiction, but there is a simpler and more realistic approach to biological warfare. You can protect your population from a virus you use to infect another population if you have a vaccine, and they don’t. (like the old Gatling gun in colonial warfare). Considering that biological weapons are also cheap, you can see how the idea of biological warfare has become popular, with China normally believed to be a leader in this field. You can read an in-depth discussion on this point on Chuck Pezeshky’s site.

Before going on, stop for a moment to remember that these are just ideas. They have never been put into practice. What could go wrong when you start playing with lethal viruses that can kill millions (maybe hundreds of millions) of people? Nevertheless, the idea of a weapon that only kills your enemies while sparing your forces is an irresistible meme for military-oriented minds. And, once the meme is loose in the memesphere, it starts acting with a force of its own. The increasing interest in bioweapons indicates that during the past 3-4 decades, military planners started believing that “genetic warfare” was a real possibility. Then, strategic planning for a biological war became a necessity, in particular about what should have been done to prepare a country for the possibility of a bioweapon attack from an enemy.

The diffusion of this meme generated a revolution in the views on how to contain an epidemic. Earlier on, preparedness was focused on natural viruses and the generally accepted view favored a soft approach: letting the virus run in the population with the idea of reaching the natural “herd immunity”. For instance, in a 2007 paper, the authors examined a possible new influence pandemic and rejected such ideas as confinement, travel bans, distancing, and others, discouraging all of them. On quarantines, they stated that “There are no historical observations or scientific studies that support the confinement by quarantine of groups of possibly infected people for extended periods in order to slow the spread of influenza.” 

But when the military approach started emerging, things changed. A bioweapon attack is nothing like a seasonal flu: it is supposed to be extremely deadly, able to cripple the functioning of an entire state. Facing such a threat, herd immunity was not enough: the virus had to be stopped by drastic measures and that would give the defenders the time to identify the virus and develop a vaccine. You can find several documents on the Web advocating this proactive attitude in the hypothesis of a deadly virus spreading (not necessarily as the result of an attack). One was prepared by the Department of Homeland Security in 2006. Another comes from the Rockefeller Foundation in 2010, including a rather well-known one by the Rockefeller Foundation, where you could read of a scenario called “Operation Lockstep” that described something very similar to what then came to pass in 2020 in terms of restriction. 

Possibly, the most interesting document in this series is the one written in 2007 for the CDC  by Rajeev Venkayya. The document didn’t use the term “lockdown” but it took a dramatic approach to a possible flu epidemic that included the possibility of a “Category 5” outbreak that would have led to nearly two million victims in the United States only. It included a series of restrictions on the movement of people and, for the first time, the concept of “flattening the curve” using NPI (“non-pharmaceutical interventions”) measures, even though it didn’t use the term. It had a remarkable influence on the events that took place in 2020. We’ll go back to this graph later. 

Up to 2020, all these ideas remained purely theoretical, memes that floated in the memesphere. Things were soon to change. 

The Wuhan Lockdown meme

In early 2020, the Chinese government reported the discovery of a new virus, that they labeled SARS-Cov2, rapidly spreading in the city of Wuhan. The Chinese authorities reacted by enacting a strict lockdown of the city and a partial one in the province of Hubei. The lockdown lasted from Jan 23 to April 8, a total of about 2 months and a half. 

It was an extraordinary event that finds no equivalent in modern or ancient times. Of course, quarantines have been known for centuries, but the idea of a quarantine is to confine people who are infected or who have been in contact with infected people. A lockdown, instead, means locking down everybody in a large geographical region. It had been tried only once in modern history, when a three-day lockdown was implemented in Sierra Leone to contain an outbreak of Ebola. It had no measurable effect on the epidemic. 

Many people have proposed elaborate hypotheses about how the Chinese government may have been planning the pandemic in advance for strategic or political reasons. I don’t see this idea as believable. Citing W.J. Astore, “People who reach the highest levels of government do so by being risk-averse. Their goal is never to screw-up in a major way. This mentality breeds cautiousness, mediocrity, and buck-passing.” I think the Chinese government is not different. Governments tend to do is to react, rather than act. 

Seen in this context, it doesn’t matter if the SARS-Cov2 virus was a natural mutation of an existing virus or, as some said, it had escaped from the biological research laboratory in Wuhan. What’s important is that the Chinese authorities reacted “by the book.” That is, they reacted by putting into practice the recommendation that could be found, for instance, in Venkayya’s CDC paper. It doesn’t mean that they actually read it. The Chinese surely had their recommendations on preparedness that may have followed the ideas that were part of the memesphere at that moment. They may have believed that the virus was a serious threat, and they may even have suspected that it was a real biological attack. In any case, it was an occasion for the Chinese leaders to show their muscles and, perhaps, also to test their preparedness plans against a possible biological attack.

Here are the results of the first phase of the pandemic in China.


We see how the number of cases moved along a typical epidemic curve that started in January 2020 and went to nearly zero after two months, and there remained for two years. There is no doubt that the Chinese government saw this result as a success. Actually, as a huge success. Don’t forget that the initial reports had described an extremely deadly virus, of the kind that could cause tens of millions of victims. In practice, the deaths attributed to the SARS-Cov2 virus in China were about 5000. Over a population of a billion and a half, it is an infinitesimal number, and the probability for a Chinese citizen to die of (or with) Covid was of the order of 2-3 in a million during 2020. The problem was that it was impossible to say whether this result was a success of the policies that were enacted, or simply the result of the virus being much less deadly than it had been feared to be. In any case, whoever took the decision of enacting the lockdown also took the merit for its perceived success: it was a personal triumph for China’s president, Xi Jinping. 

The apparent success of the Wuhan lockdown generated a new, powerful meme about the effectiveness of the drastic NPI measures based on lockdowns, distancing, cleaning, disinfecting, etcetera. They seemed to have been effective not just in terms of “flattening the curve”, but also as methods to control the epidemic and arrive at a condition of “zero covid.”

The meme “lockdowns work” spread to the Western governments, just as the SARS-Cov2 virus spread to Western countries. The memes of “flattening the curve” and of “zero covid” were remarkably successful, as you can see in these data from Google Trends 

Initially, it seemed that the epidemic in Europe would follow the same trajectory seen in China, and disappear after the first wave. I think that European leaders were genuinely convinced of this. For instance, in November 2020, the Italian Minister of Health, Mr. Roberto Speranza, published a book titled “Why we will be healed” taking credit for the successful eradication of the epidemic in Italy. But, the number of Covid cases in Italy restarted to grow, and Mr. Speranza hastily retired his book from bookstores and from the Web — it was as if that book had never existed. In no country in the West, the number of cases could be lowered to zero, nor the epidemic could be limited to a single cycle. The comparison of two years of data for China and the US is simply dramatic:

Many Chinese people seemed to take this result as a demonstration that the Chinese society is superior to the Western one because of the better discipline and self-control shown by Chinese citizens. It is an opinion (another meme) that could be maintained as long as the epidemic was at a truly zero level in China. It meant that a “covid zero” condition could be obtained by restrictions alone. 
Maybe, but a little more than two years later, things changed in China. The virus started spreading in the Southern areas of the country despite a new, drastic lockdown enacted by the authorities. Here are the most recent data available.
And you see that China went along the same path that several Western countries followed. After a lull in the spread of the virus, they concluded that the virus was eradicated, only for a new, stronger wave to come. China didn’t do so much better than the West, after all. 
The Memes that won
Up to March 2022, the China lockdown policy was seen as an exemplary case of successful containment of an epidemic. But now, can we still say that? I would argue that what we are seeing is a meme that got loose in the mind of politicians and led them to make several bad mistakes. 
The point, here, is to define success and failure in the containment of a pandemic. But what metric would you use? Let’s go back to Venkayya’s diagram, reproducing it here once more. 

Take a moment to look at these curves. Do you notice what scam this diagram is? This figure is not based on data, has no experimental verification, no references in past studies. It is just something that Venkayya thought was a good idea. The problem is that the diagram cannot be quantified: it shows two nice and smooth theoretical curves. But, in the real world, you would never be able to observe both curves. Think of the epidemic in Wuhan: which of the two curves describes it? You cannot say: you would have needed two Wuhans, one where the restrictions were implemented, another where they weren’t. Then, you could compare. 

Of course, in the real world, there are no two Wuhans, but there are 51 US states that applied different versions of the concept of “restrictions” during the pandemic. A recent study by the National Bureau of Economics Research went to examine how the different states performed and found essentially no effect of the restriction on the health of the citizens. There are other studies based on the different performances of US or European states that show how the effect of NPI such as lockdowns, distancing, masks, etc., is weak if existing at all. 

That leaves open the question of why the first lockdown in Wuhan was apparently effective. The key, here, is the term “effective.” If the virus had been deadly, maybe even a biological weapon, as it was believed at the beginning, then, yes, you could claim that the Wuhan NPI had contained it. But later experience showed that the Covid virus was not more lethal than that of normal influenza. Some data show that it may have been endemic before the outburst of 2020, so the immune system of the Chinese was already equipped to cope with it.  


The Lockdown Meme in Shanghai

At this point, I think we can understand the reasons for the recent lockdown of Shanghai and other areas of China. It is a good example of the power of memes. It is possible that the Chinese officials were genuinely convinced that the Wuhan lockdown of 2020 demonstrated that restrictions work (in different terms, they remained infected with the relative meme). So, facing a new wave of viruses, they tended to react in the same way. And, again, it is perfectly possible that they were (and still are) convinced that they are doing their best to help Chinese citizens to overcome a real threat, just as many Chinese citizens are.

If this is true, they must have been surprised when they saw that the new Covid wave stubbornly refused to be “flattened” as the first one had been. The problem, at this point, lies with the stubbornness of memes, especially in the minds of politicians. A politician, in China as everywhere else, can never admit to having been wrong. When they find that some of their actions don’t lead to the expected results, they tend to double down. Of course, a larger dose of a bad remedy does not usually help, but it is the way the human mind works. We may imagine that the leaders of the inhabitants of Easter Island did the same when they increased the effort in building large statues there. Incidentally, these statues were the result of another stubborn meme infecting a population.

Conclusion: a memetic cascade

Two years of the pandemic are summarized in a single graphic from “Worldometers.” What you see is a series of seasonal peaks, one in the summer for the Southern Hemisphere, the other in Winter/Spring for the Northern Hemisphere. There is no evidence that the various campaign of non-pharmaceutical interventions had a significant effect. The average Covid mortality as reported in the graph, above, is of the order of 0.5% of the total. The question that we face, then, is how was it that the world reacted with such extreme measures to a threat that, seen today, was much exaggerated. It may be still too early to understand exactly what happened, but I think it is possible to propose reasonable explanations. It was a typical “feedback cascade” in the world’s memesphere that led us where we are. A convergence of parallel views from politicians, decision-makers, industrial lobbies, and even simple citizens, most of them truly convinced that they were doing the right thing. 

I don’t mean here that there were no conspiracies in this story, in the sense of groups of people acting to exploit the pandemic for their personal economic or political interests. Lobbies do ride memes for their own advantage. But, overall, memes can be a force that can move infected people even against 
their personal interests. My grandmother had no advantage, just a slightly higher cost, from her habit of boiling her milk before drinking it. It is the same for the Covid story. Daniel Dennett said that “a human being is an ape infested with memes.” and that’s probably what we are. 

Fortunately, the number of cases in China seems to have reached its peak and from now on, it can only start going down. Requiem for an old meme? We can hope it will be. But the recent news from Shanghai is still worrisome, with the government apparently engaged in fencing apartment buildings to keep people locked inside

See also the work by Jeffrey Tucker, and Chuck Pezeshky.)

Originally appeared on The Seneca Effect Read More