Empathy in the Time of Coronavirus (II) – What Societies are Capable of in Crisis

Sinterklaas.. a sunny day in Delft, NL 2008.

Note — for those new to my writing, here’s a couple of things to know.

  1. I write about how the full stack of empathy — from mirroring all the way to conscious prediction — connects us as humans.
  2. That leads to important insights on how humans, or more specifically, how human networks create knowing and knowledge. It doesn’t all come from Dead or Alive White Guys. This COVID-19 epidemic, and how we understand it, is really about how our society is connected together and forms understanding of how the epidemic is proceeding.
  3. Synergy in knowledge comes from empathy in exchange of information between actors. If you can’t empathize, you’re unlikely to synthesize your understanding between you and other people. As true for scientists as it is for others.
  4. Empathy (which does include the more familiar “feeling empathy” people recognize) is the information coherence function between two people. This leads to all sorts of interesting phenomena, such as predictable (canonical) knowledge structures we all use. Specific knowledge may be different, but the structure of the knowledge can match — especially if we come out of the same social structure (hierarchy, tribe, social net, etc.) When you deeply connect, odds are, you’ll walk away from the exchange with the same message.
  5. Two punchlines : 1.) As we relate, so we think — if we practice rational relationships, we’ll likely be rational people; 2.) We aren’t going to solve complex problems without the wisdom of an aware crowd. Everyone has to be a sensor and a contributor.

OK — here we go. This is the good stuff that people who come to this blog expect in times like this. This post will cover “how can we gauge a priori the efficacy of any given action to control the virus?” If we understand this post, then we can also understand what we likely, or not likely can pull off. Things that work in China may or may not work in the U.S. Things that work in Taiwan may or may not work in the U.S. Regardless of country, though, there are tons of lessons out there. And this pandemic is providing a palette of actions and responses that we will be learning from for a long time in the future. Because there WILL be a future.

To start, here is the maxim that I will discuss:

Societies will maximize their efficacy in confronting the virus if a.) they understand their stage of development they are at, and tailor realistically their strategies for the stage of development they are at, and the matching average v-Meme of the population they’re attempting to manage. Their stage of development will dictate what messages can be received and understood. Less evolved individuals will have to be told/forced into doing given preventative activities. More evolved individuals can handle greater complexity in strategies, tactics, and immediate actions.

Here’s a start at the developmental values stack, along with their concurrent knowledge structures. You don’t have to read the fine print if you don’t want — here’s the gist.

Authoritarian societies are going to do best being told what to do, and forcing individuals to do it.

Legalistic societies are going to do best creating rules for people to follow, communicating why, and enforcing rules.

Performance/Goal-based societies will use the the two above strategies, along with clearly identified goals, and some notion of data tracking (whatever that is — we’ll explore.)

Communitarian societies will have access to everything above, as well as customizing response based on the individuals involved, and synthesizing advice from different fields to create specific locale/crafted strategies.

Here’s the unvarnished Knowledge Structures slide:

The knowledge structure stack

So, let’s pull apart a couple of strategies, and understand them in the context of societal and empathetic personal development – their ability to utilize in a society both self-identify (agency/self-empathy) and connect with others (traditional empathy.) My wife, a trauma psychologist who is also Taiwanese, wrote up these five points for Taiwan, that adopted an immediate border closing and test policy. Here are her comments:

5 reasons relevant for understanding Taiwan’s experiences — 

1. The majority of people in Taiwan are a homogeneous group with similar Legalistic and Authoritarian Value-Memes (e.g., Willingness to follow the rules even though they bring you inconvenience. Consideration to others rather than just taking care of self. Effective top-down hierarchical crisis management). Even though there was a heated presidential election in November 2019, there is actually no major diversity of life style to split this island. 

2. “Nerdy” professionals are valued in Taiwan and are leading the policies & actions of fighting COVID-19 based on professional medical knowledge with advanced-technical support.

3. There are not enough “otherness” groups in Taiwan to become a significant “target of blame.” Don’t imagine that there is no discrimination or micro-aggression in Taiwan, it’s just that there are not enough diversity to create diversion. 

4. Even though Taiwanese people know that COVID-19 mostly targets physically vulnerable population, they are willing to take actions to protect the elders. Senior citizens are valued and respected because of the traditional Asian culture. 

5. As an island living through so much trauma and disasters, Taiwanese have a lot of resilience from the chronic adaptation to Traumatic Stress.

My wife’s analysis illustrates exactly the background societal dynamics that explains Taiwan’s success. Taiwan is largely a Legalistic society, with some Communitarian tendencies. They tend to be rule-followers, there is still lots of stress and emphasis on young people to sort with entrance exams, and to accept one’s fate if one doesn’t cut the mustard.

There is also a strong Authoritarian bent in Taiwanese v-Meme make-up. Being a professor, even in a very capitalist economy (Taiwanese are extremely entrepreneurial!) is a high-status, sought-after position, even though the pay is mediocre. The virtue associated with the position means that their best and brightest aspire to becoming a scholar. That helps in times like this, when you actually need experts with a strong sense of national identity to help out.

Taiwanese universities also have legitimate shared governance. The couple that I’ve visited had elected Rectors/Provosts/Heads of the Academic Food Chain, as opposed to the appointed system of Presidents/Provosts/Deans in the U.S. This matters in the bigger picture. While status matters, there is far more emphasis on your responsibility to larger society than in U.S. universities — at least that I observed. All the professors also have served time in the military, because EVERYONE has to. Most have shot a gun, and the older faculty I’ve talked to were part of the largely symbolic artillery barrage directed against China. This has stopped, but is interesting in how people form “We” group identity.

Finally, the last interesting part is that Taiwanese, by virtue of their national history, are trauma survivors. This goes back a long way. Taiwan was occupied by Japan during WWII, and when the Kuomintang fled mainland China, needless to say, they had no illusions what the CCP would like to do to them. What this means from a psycho-social perspective is this: they know they can die, and are easily triggered to act. They don’t assume any kind of exceptionalism, like we do in the U.S., regarding their ultimate fate if they don’t prepare. Taiwan is a reasonably religious country — Buddhist shrines are everywhere, and there is a large Christian presence – 6% of the population. But they aren’t like the U.S., sitting around whispering “thoughts and prayers.”

And this epidemic is NOT their first rodeo. They got a bit surprised by the SARS epidemic of 2003. But it is mostly definitely “never again”.

One of the interesting things about Taiwan is the diversity puzzle. Taiwan consists of three main ethnic groups — Hoklo/Han Chinese, the original Taiwanese people, and Hakka people, also of Han Chinese descent from southern Taiwan. They DO differentiate — but their differentiation is not so great as to cause major conflict. A huge part of the problem with racism in the United States is a lack of basic life services, so discrimination matters in one’s ability to survive. Taiwan has essentially 99% coverage of the population with health services, and economically, everyone can work who wants to work — a combination of national safety nets, as well as a strong work ethic.

All these things form powerful forces for social coherence. You do have an internationalist class that feels some obligation to the country’s survival as a whole, and has the opportunity for greater intellectual sophistication (which is prized) and empathetic evolution. Yet since even the peasants are taken care of (and there are many people in Taiwan at the tribal level) everyone shares a reasonably strong national identity, which is super-important regarding cooperation in levels Legalistic and below. In a national crisis like a pandemic, they know most all of them are going to be fine. So they’ll do what the authorities tell them to do.

So what exactly did Taiwan do, that mapped into their truth-based self-awareness development? This timeline is taken from this piece, but also maps well to how my wife and I followed the handling of the pandemic, with information from her father and mother.

  1. When China reported out a cluster of pneumonia cases on Dec. 31, they started watching, monitoring people visiting from Wuhan, CN.
  2. They backtracked shortly thereafter, monitoring everyone from the area who had arrived at or before Dec. 20.
  3. Mid-January, a team from Taiwan visited Wuhan and gathered even more information.
  4. By late January, they had established a centralized Epidemic Control, and banned flights from Wuhan.
  5. They cracked down on mask and sanitizer hoarding almost immediately thereafter, and made sure that everyone had a supply of masks (2/day) to use. They distributed some 6.5 million masks to schools and after-school institutions.
  6. They had already installed an infrastructure of broad-scope temperature testing of individuals at airports and other points-of-entry.
  7. They tracked people who were tested once, parents reported their own children’s fevers, and they re-tested as necessary. They did not engage in cordons or lockdowns, other than control at the borders.
  8. Public service announcements regarding prevention and containment were played on the hour, mandated on radio and television statements. I don’t have information on what they did with dissenting voices, if there were any — but they certainly didn’t allow any of this kind of crazy bullshit.

Effective prevention of the COVID-19 outbreak took advantage of Taiwan’s culture and social structures. Individuals were treated individually (Communitarian v-Meme) when appropriate. Individuals were also supposed to bear responsibility for not infecting others, and did not assume that they would be discriminated against. There were lots of rules (Legalistic v-Meme) for everyone — but the government, through pretty radical transparency, made sure that people understood the “why” of the rules.

And finally, the government had a larger coherent narrative that was consistently broadcast, and not allowed to be corrupted by disruptive forces. I don’t know the amount of histrionic media in Taiwan, but I’ll bet there wasn’t a lot. It wasn’t their first rodeo, and so the idea that this was some kind of plot by the government to “seize control” was just not a popular lede. And because everyone in the society would be taken care of, people were invested, regardless of their education or social standing, in following the rules, with stories told to them so that everyone could understand what was demanded of them.

Contrast that to the situation in the U.S. currently. The mind reels.


Now let’s look at what China did to contain the coronavirus.

A couple of things before we dig in. China is, without a doubt, an authoritarian society. My old Chinese girlfriend, when we discussed the “We” nature, a popular lede in U.S. cultural studies, laughed. She said “Oh, it’s a ‘We’ society for sure. One guy, the leader, runs in one direction, and everyone follows him!” If you’re differentiated outside the dominant group, and happen not to be an external, high status sub-group (trust me — as a White Male Professor, I have SERIOUS white privilege when I visit China) you’re in a world of hurt. I don’t want to get into the whole Uighur situation right now, but the West has a very distorted view — both positive and negative — of how China actually operates.

Some 95% of Chinese society is Han Chinese. There are ethnic minority groups, and the ones closer to the population centers are less differentiated from the larger body than they might admit. Here’s a picture of me with a Zhuang tribeswoman, who I had a lovely fascinating experience with in Guangxi Province.

Zhuang Woman (and BS accounting major) Longji, Guangxi Province

So what did China do to manage COVID-19 when the outbreak occurred in Wuhan?

Initially, when the outbreak occurred, local city and provincial governors lied about the extent. That quickly changed, however, and the Beijing government ordered a lockdown on 60 million people in Hubei province. At the same time, they started building hospitals to treat the inevitable overflow of capacity. Severe travel restrictions were implemented.

And while China did develop testing capacity, in no way could they pursue individuals like Taiwan did. Statistics from China may be large compared to other areas, but there are a lot of people in Wuhan. Travel bans stopped the flow of cars, and universities and industry were shut down. Simple messages/ classic Authoritarian fragments were repeated over and over (wash your hands!) But some residents were also nailed/welded inside their apartments to control the virus, and discontent from the measures is widespread.

And then there is the issue of viral outbreak again as China reopens Wuhan. There is still no vaccine for a mass vaccination program. China has trumpeted their success through their official propaganda organs, but lots of people aren’t buying it. A gratitude re-education campaign by one Wuhan party official was roundly denounced on social media.

Since I’ve pretty much relied on my own experience in China, along with Western media, I think I have a reasonable grasp of actual events. But it’s still hard to figure out the extent and severity of dissent in China. That said, what China’s response shows is what an Authoritarian system would do in this circumstance, when it can’t rely on individual responsibility and agency because it simply hasn’t been cultivated. The overall grounding dynamics of illness and death forced the hand of first the regional authority, and then the national government — they couldn’t deny that people were dying. Dr. Li Wenliang, the Wuhan doctor who was the persecuted whistleblower on the epidemic, died, and served as a turning point in information on the epidemic. If they wanted to maintain order, they had to be truthful with their population.

But you can also see that Authoritarian societies have very limited toolkits to deal with this kind of situation. People already half-assume the government is lying to them, so soft means of control have to be implemented. I’m also willing to bet (and time will tell) that people held a dichotomous perspective on the situation. First, they thought the government was likely underestimating the damage, to maintain the air of authority. But secondly, because Authoritarian systems are built on cultivating a depressed, low responsibility underclass, people realized their survival was up to them, and fell little or no allegiance to higher Authority in the crisis. They had never been responsible — and they weren’t going to start feeling that way now, when their immediate family was threatened. And China most definitely value family. The entire background culture is built on it.

Contrast Taiwan to China — and now one can see the advantage of higher social evolution in effectively containing and controlling spread of something like COVID-19. Empathetic Taiwan still has the same risks of spread since they controlled their outbreak, and didn’t let the virus create herd immunity. And here’s the Deep Empathy angle — by utilizing every individual as a sensor, Taiwan stands a far better chance of holding COVID-19 at bay until a vaccine and related campaign (which is actually an Authority-driven solution — everyone is subject to it!) can be developed.

What about the U.S.? Unfortunately, the U.S. response is essentially a mess, and the sign of a country under relational collapse. It’s so crazy-quilt out there as of this writing, I don’t feel like I can say much of anything. Ostensibly a Performance-focused Communitarian society, we have none of the lower v-Meme scaffolding to support an advanced empathetic culture. We have recognition of individuals as different, yet we have no common origination stories any more that would bind us together in a crisis. As a result, people are out in the streets celebrating St. Patrick’s Day. A huge hunk of the country south of the Mason-Dixon line celebrates an insurrection that killed more people than any external war. And both sides of the news cycle (though Fox is by far the worse) drives either false or hysterical narratives. Our information coherence functions in the society have been hacked by a deeply disruptive memetic virus — the result of no federal safety net, including public health care, as significant regional economies collapsed over the last 40 years.

As of this writing, there is marginal ability to impose even location restrictions to contain spread — let alone implement a more Communitarian program where people might phone in health conditions so we could both contain potential virus spreaders, while also offering services that will assure their health. There aren’t really any significant testing resources of this date, so everyone with a brain knows the actual infection rate is grossly underreported. Either this thing is contagious or not, and if it is, far more people have it than have been tested, which as I wrote in an earlier piece is oddly good news in the places that have been infected for a while, like Pullman. I have no hope of getting anything like a surgical mask, and I’ve been getting ready to get on my sewing machine and make some.

Practice makes perfect

And there is precious interest at the top of the Federal Government in doing anything except attempting to prop up the stock market. We are a complex information system with severely broken complexity links. We’ve let a Performance-based, nominally Communitarian society decay up and down the class scale. And that’s exacerbated problems with racial and gender equality already extant in our society. Even our school kids attend grade and high schools that resemble prisons, with buzzing doors and search, so they won’t get shot up by the next mass shooter. When you live in fear of your child being shot on a daily basis, how can you generate a functional society?

Our ability to generate individual wealth is still unparalleled in the world. But it has come at tremendous social cost. I have seen no other photos of other societies rushing stores to clean out shelves like in the U.S. The problem is that it is a rational response to our current predicament. When you can expect nothing from your neighbors except viral spread, in a hyper-individualized society, it’s stock up or die. Money is the hammer, and every problem we have is a nail.

The problem is that it reduces the temporal and spatial horizons of the thinking parties — independent of party affiliation. All of us sink – and become more stupid. I know, for myself, that I have been calculating probabilities of stores running out of goods and services that I might need. Fortunately for me, I have an expansive understanding of supply chain dynamics, and know that certain items (like food) are unlikely to run out. But if you’re not me, and can’t just pick up the phone and talk to the head of R&D at the major food manufacturing equipment company, it is certainly terrifying. I think I’m going to be sitting in this chair for a while typing, so I’m pondering buying a new accordion. Others are obviously not so lucky.

There are some hopeful stories around the world, about people coming together, empathizing, and creating shared solutions. Long-term, that bodes well in creating people capable of handling different problems of complexity. Our empathy muscle is only as good as we practice. But in the short run, we’re in a tight spot. Stay tuned. There’s more to this story. As for me, I’m thanking the Universe this bug is only 10x as lethal as the flu.

Imagine if it were 100x.

9 thoughts on “Empathy in the Time of Coronavirus (II) – What Societies are Capable of in Crisis

  1. Wow – great analysis – I want to know what comes echoing back from these two pieces.


    On Wed, Mar 18, 2020 at 3:14 PM It’s About Empathy – Connection Ties Us Together wrote:

    > Chuck Pezeshki posted: ” Sinterklaas.. a sunny day in Delft, NL 2008. Note > — for those new to my writing, here’s a couple of things to know. I write > about how the full stack of empathy — from mirroring all the way to > conscious prediction — connects us as humans.That leads ” >


    1. Time to broadcast to the network — if you think it’s refined enough. It’s actually an amazing case study. This whole situation, because it strips things down to our reactive essence, takes us out of our moderating cultural sidebars and gets down to our deep values.

      If there wasn’t so much chaos and stakes of human life, it would be a window in a fascinating human experiment.


  2. There are pockets of Legalistic + Communitarian V-Meme within China. To achieve the social stability, there are both official and unofficial community-monitoring. In affluent areas, like Beijing or Shanghai, some people live in gated, high quality, communities. Those communities have plenty of self-organized monitoring and mutual support. For example, a person travelled back from the US to Beijing, would contact their local officers as well as their gated community, so both of them would prepare how to safely move this person back to his apartment. If the gated community is communitarian, this person may be greeted with other people’s kindness (e.g., prepared food and other necessity for 2 weeks).

    Liked by 1 person

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