What if Covid Came From a Country You Couldn’t Locate on a Map? | Adam Garrie
Beginning in January, genuinely horrifying video footage from Wuhan began to fill the world’s screens. Such imagines included those of panicked doctors racing through overcrowded hospital corridors before collapsing from exhaustion in lifts, people being dragged out of their homes kicking and screaming by police dressed in space suits, others seemingly dropping dead in the middle of the streets and later, large blocks of flats padlocked from the outside. Much of this footage was genuine, whilst some of it appeared to be digitally manipulated or staged. In either case, both mainstream and social media were sending a visually unambiguous message: apocalyptic conditions have arrived in China.
In the wider world, perceptions of China vary greatly. For some (including George Osborne and David Cameron), China is a place where rapid economic growth and technological expansion demonstrate that when the dogmas of Maoist economics are cast off, great progress can be made. For others (including Donald Trump and Nigel Farage), China is a dystopian police state where privacy and liberty have been obliterated and concentration camps are the norm. But no one can deny that China is a relevant country and one still only vaguely understood by ordinary westerners, Africans and even some Asians.
Many have compared China’s botched and conspiratorial handling of the Covid crisis to the USSR’s handling of the Chernobyl meltdown. There are many similarities in an emperical sense, but there are also similarities in a broader metaphysical sense. Chernobyl was a signpost to the world that the Soviet Union was capable of wicked acts through negligence and a subsequent cover-up, just as sure as it was capable of wicked acts by design. For many, this came as a shock. Although every adult living in 1986 would have been aware of the USSR’s nuclear and military might, the fact that such a colossal accident could have happened and that human life even outside of the USSR’s borders could be put at risk due to the initial cover-up, made the USSR look both weak and wicked simultaneously.
China is increasingly fulfilling the global role once played by the Soviet Union and is therefore going to increasingly penetrate the consciousness of those who in previous years and decades thought little about China. With this in mind, an important question must be asked: what if the infamous coronavirus originated in a country that many people in the west could scarcely even locate on a map?
Between 1976 and the present day, there have been multiple Ebola outbreaks originating in African countries whose names have changed so frequently that one could be forgiven for not knowing whether Zaire, Democratic Republic of the Congo or the Republic of Congo are the same place. Most adults reading this have lived through all of these Ebola outbreaks but few in Europe, North America or Asia will have any personal memories of any of them.
In 2003 and 2004, the SARS pandemic was widely reported, but typically relegated to pages of the papers that were far less interesting than those covering the war in Iraq. One must recall that China had only joined the WTO three years prior to its SARS outbreak. The China of the first decade of the 21st century was one that few westerners paid much attention to, apart from some businessmen and anti-communist activists.
I must confess that I read so little reportage on the MERS crisis that I had to refresh my memory as to when it began (2015 as it turns out). It would seem that even for a regular reader of multiple newspapers, the Middle East remained more infamous for military conflict and terrorism than for a disease literally named for the region.
Since China is famous for reverse engineering, it is high time to reverse engineer our emotional and psychological reactions to Covid-19, based on our experience with other pandemics, including some deadlier ones. We already know from the past that public perceptions of a pandemic aren’t necessarily related to the lethality of a particular disease. The Spanish Flu’s very existence was heavily censored in the countries most impacted by the disease. Thus, for those who were unfortunate enough to become infected, Spanish Flu was a colossal matter, but for those who were not infected, life remained almost entirely unchanged. In 1968, the Hong Kong flu proved to be incredibly deadly (far deadlier than Covid is likely to be), but in social history books about the western world, 1968 tends to be remembered more for the “summer of love”, the May ’68 French riots, the US war in Vietnam and the assassinations of both Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr.
Although it is impossible to predict how the history of the present will be recorded in future decades, as little else has been allowed to happen in 2020 apart from the Covid pandemic, it is safe to say that 2020 will likely be remembered as the year of the Covid pandemic.
And thus, we end up back at the beginning when the horrifying images coming out of China in January filled our screens. Could it be that the western world was so spooked by the objectively spooky scenes in Wuhan that that when it became clear that the virus would go global, western leaders decided to be guided by the fear derived from these images rather than through a more objective and balanced approach?
Initially, the western world did almost nothing to prepare for the entirely foreseeable global spread of the virus, even though highly advanced Asian countries including South Korea, Japan, Taiwan and Singapore began taking precautions immediately. But when Europe and North America did at long last start to take the virus seriously, they behaved more like China than like other Asian countries that took a far less draconian approach and still achieved better results in containing the virus than China has done.
It is as if China’s ubiquity in the modern world has emotionally informed the western response to Covid-19. By contrast, diseases from Africa, South America and even the SARS pandemic from a far less globally important China of 2003, all failed to terrify western leaders and the western public.
It would therefore seem logical to assume that if this coronavirus first appeared in a country that threatens no one, inspires few and whose existence is scarcely known outside of its own region, the western response to such a virus would have been guided by actual science, rather than led by the nose through the horror of seeing a globally important country reacting to the virus in the harrowing and dystopian way in which it did.
China’s state-run media obviously had a different agenda in screening the terrifying footage vis-a-vis anti-communist activists who released similar footage in January. And yet, the effect on the western mind was the same. Those who dislike China decided that if a proud, mighty and wicked country reacted to the virus in such a way, there must be some pragmatic value in such a response. Simultaneously, those who admire China felt that if a proud, mighty and successful country reacted to the virus in such a way, there must be some pragmatic value in such a response.
Are Upper Volta, Zaire and Swaziland capable of arousing such strong feelings among the average westerner? The answer is clearly “no”, especially among those who haven’t yet realised that these countries have all changed their names. In this sense, the west has fallen victim to both its home grown Sinophiles and its home grown Sinosceptics.